Data must have a user-centred focus, GDS says

The Government Digital Service (GDS) has published a blog outlining why Whitehall teams designing data infrastructure should ensure it is customer-centred.

User researcher Kieron Kirkland wrote that “most government service teams don’t really care about data, they care about their service”.

He went on to add that, “If we want to get people to change their data habits and use the new pieces of data infrastructure we’re building, such as open registers, we can’t just tell them to do it. We need to show people how we can help them to improve their service.

“Understanding this means that we’re learning to make the infrastructure relevant and adoptable because it addresses the real-life problems that services face, rather than just asserting how we’d like people to be using data. That would be our need, not theirs.”


Reliant on people

Kirkland went on to explain that finding and updating data still relies on people talking to people. “If someone wants reference data, such as a list of prisons, they’ll probably ask someone in their team,” he said.

“If we don’t take account of this behaviour among users, we impede their chances of finding and using the data sources we’re developing.”

In the blog post, which can be read in full here, Kirkland went on to discuss why Excel spreadsheets are still a valuable tool, despite data becoming richer and more complex. He also added that metadata should be used sparingly.

“Most users prefer to see the actual data first before finding out more about the dataset,” commented. “They may want to see a small amount of specific metadata, like who created the data and when it was updated. But mostly it’s about checking out the data first. Showing users too much metadata upfront is overwhelming and doesn’t reflect how they assess the value of datasets.”


Risk and reward

The final element of the blog discussed how using any third-party data source is about balancing risk and reward.

“Most services rely on data,” Kirkland said. “However when teams store their own copies of data, such as lists of prisons or schools, it can be difficult to keep it up to date. Out of date data can lead to a poor service experience.

“So, data specialists advocate fetching data from reliable sources using automated services like APIs (application programming interfaces).

“However, during our research we found many service teams still prefer to store their own copies of data. Understanding this has altered how we serve data in our services. For example, with open registers, users can choose to download the latest copy of a register rather than use the API. This gives them the benefits of using up-to-date data, without any risk.”

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