The narrative of utilising data to improve public services is often plagued by the failures of past to fully communicate and involve the citizen in the data discussion. As we enter (or have already entered!) the age of Internet of Things, wearables and mobile computing the information becoming available is becoming richer and more powerful to improve quality of life for the nation, we are able to better manage our own health through fitness trackers and monitoring mobile apps and our digital interactions with commercial organisations can enable us to benefit from tailored services and discounts on consumer products.

Which all sounds rather great. However, it’s not. For far too long trust between the citizen and organisations has been eroded. The citizen has left a significant data footprint and, in general, organisations have failed to build adequate trust with the citizen to show they can be good with data and that they will protect it with the interests of the citizen at heart and provide tangible benefits. Until the social contracts between the citizen and organisations are re-balanced trust will remain the barrier between a world where we create lots of data and a world where lots of data is utilised for public good.

So whilst we try and understand how we can unlock the potential of personal data from IoT, wearables and mobile applications, what about the masses of data which already exists co-produced through the citizen using public services, can we use existing data sets across local services to provide better value and improved public services?

At a recent BCS Health event titled ‘Utilising data to improve public services and new models for personal data’ we heard about new initiatives in the UK and implementations in the US where we are connecting the dots, created by our digital footprints, to better manage public services, help improve the lives of citizens and aid medical research. The discussion featured expertise from Jos Creese (BCS President), Hakim Yadi (Chief Executive Northern Health Sciences Alliance) and Beth Blauer (Executive director of the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins) with an audience of 50 BCS members.

Jos Creese, BCS President and former CIO of Hampshire County Council framed the discussion, discussing the data footprint left by the citizen and the lack of control they have over how and what their information is used for. Organisations managing data need to recognise that there is competitive advantage through being trustworthy and we need better mechanisms to control our data. Jos commented that BCS has a role in society to help organisations understand the importance of being good with data and help the citizen to understand how their data is used and how they can exert meaningful control over their information, BCS must also work with government to ensure the right regulation and frameworks are in place to support data sharing when it’s on terms that work for everyone.

Outlining the significance of launching the Connected Cities initiative in the North of England and the importance of using local data sets, Hakim Yadi informed us that the difference in life expectancy between Liverpool and Guilford is 19 years. When the picture of the health of the nation is so wide, using national data sets will fail to address the needs of regions and poorly inform local authority decision making. The Connected Cities initiative is working with HSCIC and will look to use local data sets across local authorities to help provide better services through aggregating available non identifiable data. It was very clear that the initiative is particularly mindful that in order to be successful, there needs to be a high degree of citizen engagement to understand how data is used and how it benefit the local community. The aims of the initiative are to use local data sets to help better manage health and care services, patient pathways and medical research.

Our final speaker, Beth Blaeur, Executive director of the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins, closed the evening’s talks by introducing the work she has carried out in the 21st Century Cities initiatives. Similar to the work of NHSA, the UK the 21st Century cities initiative is putting into practice connecting local authority data sets to evidence City planning decision making. In Maryland the initiative created the first open data platform of public data which allowed the state to deliver support decisions via data and evidence. This has enabled opportunity to develop capacity building for local services, Beth provided us with one example in Kansas City where they are using trip and fall data to help aid transport planning.

In another example, Beth showed us how citizen engagement and innovation in data sharing can improve local authority accountability, previously when there was an issue around garbage collection the citizen would have to call the local authorities to address the situation, now they can take a photo of it share it socially on a map - making other citizens aware it has been reported - and pass it to local government, the community then knows that they don’t need to report it themselves and local authority have a greater need to resolve it before they receive further complaints.

During the session Beth shared some of her experiences and practices. It was clear that big culture changes were required and citizen engagement is a necessity in order to achieve some of the outcomes of the initiative. The initiative worked with local mayors to coach them on how the use of data and analytics can be used to help deliver the mission of government, they also appointed citizen advisors on local projects to ensure they were part of the process.

Some key themes emerged from the talks:

  • Utilise existing non identifiable data sets
  • Working with data locally is more beneficial to local services than basing policy or decision making using national data sets
  • Make this a participative process - work with the citizen.
  • Help local government understand how connecting data can enable them to deliver their mission, as well as understand the sensitives over using data.
  • Examples in America show how a co-ordinated local approach can deliver better public services

Following the speaker presentations the audience broke out into teams to address the following questions:

  • What do you believe is the single biggest lever to enabling connected cities in the UK?
  • Citizen empowerment, what should local authorities do to involve the citizen in connected cities initiatives?
  • What does a citizen empowered personal data sharing look like in health and care?

View Beth Blauer's 21st Century Cities Initiatives presentation