Eddie Copeland Offices of Data Analytics

Data, Tech Policy

UK Offices of Data Analytics – from rhetoric to reality

12 Jun , 2016  

If you’ve heard me speak at a conference or read one of my blogs, you’ve probably gathered that I’m a big admirer of New York City’s Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics (MODA). At times I may have sounded like a broken record. In my defence, there are good reasons to be excited about the model and its potential to be adapted to meet the needs of UK cities.

First, MODA started out gloriously low-tech – Post-it notes and Excel spreadsheets, not Hadoop – proving that old public sector IT systems are no excuse to delay using data well.

Second, unlike many other smart city initiatives, it provides a clear ROI: data interventions don’t proceed beyond an early trial stage unless they offer clear value or save money, a policy imperative for the UK right now.

Third, it’s not a superficial bolt-on to city governance, but is rather fully engrained into the way the city is run, informing policy, city strategy and public service delivery.

Fourth, it’s policy agnostic. A model created by Mike Flowers under Mayor Bloomberg is still in use, targeted at different priorities, under Mayor de Blasio. For proof of the model’s adaptability, look at how Oliver Wise has created a version for New Orleans, or how What Works Cities is helping 100 mid-sized American cities adapt it to enhance their use of data and evidence to improve services, inform local decision-making and engage residents.

A fifth benefit speaks to one of my core beliefs about UK local government: that it is not sufficient for each local authority to become the most efficient it can be. Real reform requires finding new and imaginative ways to collaborate. People do not conveniently live out their lives in one local authority area. Communities, areas of deprivation, crime, littering and school catchment areas can (and frequently do) cut across borders.

As a result, some services will be best delivered within a single local authority. Others would be better conducted in collaboration with one or more neighbouring councils. Others still, at a city region level. Like a series of Venn diagrams, the most appropriate geography will vary from one service to another. To determine the optimum size, public sector leaders need to have visibility (i.e. data) on the real distribution of problems, demand and opportunities; visibility that all too many cities currently lack. By bringing together data from across a whole city or region, that is exactly the problem that the MODA model resolves.

For all these reasons, the core principles that underpin the MODA model (bringing together, analysing and acting upon data at a city scale) are 21st Century City Governance 101. At least that’s my view. And it’s time to test it in the real world.

City data pilots

Nesta is launching a programme of work in London in partnership with the GLA’s Andrew Collinge and Paul Hodgson, and in the North East with the generous support of the Digital Catapult, David Dunn of Sunderland Software City and Professor Rob Wilson of Newcastle University (final partners to be confirmed shortly) to test whether the ODA model can work successfully on this side of the pond – and if so, under what conditions and with what adaptations. To state the obvious, no UK city is like New York. Political power and service delivery are distributed across many more organisations here. The model will inevitably be different.

More than mere adaptation, we aspire for improvement – to build upon everything achieved in the USA and add our own innovations to make it even more effective. Nesta is not unique in this objective. Manchester – inspired by the self-same MODA model – is running its own, highly ambitious data sharing programme, GM-Connect. Belfast and Cardiff have indicated plans to do something similar. A tipping point has finally been reached. My hope is that Nesta can help turn it into an avalanche.

Our work will begin with a series of pilots with volunteer local authorities in London and the North East to prove that city-scale data analytics can help inform interventions that save real money in local public services. Having that kind of evidence will be vital to secure political support and budgets from central government and city leaders to extend the model.

We have spent the last few weeks crowdsourcing a list of potential challenge areas to tackle. Next week I’ll publish a list of all the suggestions received to date; we’d welcome comments and suggestions for their improvement. If successful, our hope is that these experiments will pave the way to create permanent Offices of Data Analytics London, the North East and many other UK cities and city regions.

In addition to running the pilots, we’re putting together a series of conferences and workshops to bring together all UK city data analytics practitioners to help spread best practice as quickly as possible. The ultimate goal is to create a toolkit that any area can use and adapt to meet its own local requirements.

In the meantime, we’ll share what we learn as we go.

I’ll be blogging about the entire process from start to finish, recording successes and failures, unexpected obstacles and surprising opportunities, and asking for your help with the questions that arise along the way.

I’ve had the luxury of talking about these ideas for some time. Implementation is always much harder. But with a bit of luck, hard work and the support of willing partners, I hope this year will be start of turning the city data rhetoric into reality.

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