Action needed to maintain councils’ momentum in supporting communities through data-driven innovation

The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI), the UK government’s advisory body on the responsible use of AI and data-driven technology, has published new analysis on the use of data in local government during the COVID-19 crisis. It draws on findings from a forum attended by local authorities across the country, in which they explored changes to data use during the pandemic and discussed barriers to data-driven innovation, as well as new research into public attitudes towards local data use. Key findings include:

  • The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the innovative use of data at a local level, with a range of data-driven interventions launched or repurposed during the pandemic. Examples include: the use of the ‘VIPER’ tool by local authorities in Essex, which has enabled emergency services to share data in real time; Argyll and Bute Council’s trial of drone technology to deliver vital medical supplies across its islands; Glasgow City Council’s online platform to promote social distancing; and Hackney Council’s analysis of internal and external datasets to help them identify residents who are vulnerable to COVID-19.
  • Health data has been shared with local authorities in new ways. For example, local authorities have received access to the NHS shielding patients database, allowing authorities to better target support, including food parcels and pharmacy deliveries, to vulnerable individuals.
  • Authorities have had more success in changing how they deploy existing datasets than in acquiring or sharing data with central government or local service providers.
  • For sustainable adoption, the governance of new technologies needs to be informed by engagement with local citizens to ensure that it is trustworthy. New polling shows that 50% of people want to engage with their local authority on how data is used to make decisions.

Representatives convened by the CDEI expressed concerns that progress would not be sustained, with data use practices reverting to the pre-pandemic status quo. Reasons for this include: uncertainty around whether emergency access to datasets will be repealed; enthusiasm for data-driven interventions among decision-makers waning; fear of misjudging the public mood on what is an acceptable use of data; and reluctance among local authorities to be a “first mover” in what is perceived to be a high risk environment. Local authorities are also grappling with long-standing barriers to data-driven innovation, including skills gaps, poor data quality, lack of legal clarity and funding challenges.

The CDEI warns that progress is unlikely to be made without dedicated action from central and local government. Whilst encouraging, recent steps forward, such as the publication of the Local Government Association’s guide to predictive analytics, and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s COVID-19 challenge fund, are unlikely to move the needle on their own. Without increased investment and an improvement in data skills, local authorities will struggle to retain and build on recent progress. In its National Data Strategy, the government has outlined an ambition to strengthen skills, improve access to data, and offer greater regulatory clarity, and has committed to working to better support local government in maximising the benefits of data.

While conversations have already started on what practices should be retained post-pandemic, the CDEI’s forum pushed thinking further by focusing on the importance of good data governance in enabling trustworthy data use. While responsible data governance was top of mind for data leads, they commented on the difficulty of translating theoretical frameworks into practical steps.

The CDEI has also researched public attitudes towards the use of data in local government, and the results suggest that citizens want a stake in how their data is used. In the representative sample of 2,025 people, conducted with Deltapoll, 50% reported interest in engaging with their local authority on how data is used to make decisions. Levels of understanding around how local authorities use data is extremely varied: 39% said that they did not know if their personal data is being collected or how it is being used.

The results suggest that the public are more comfortable with data collection and use by their local authority if context is provided. When given specific scenarios, such as the use of data to identify children who might be at risk of domestic violence, the proportion of people who felt comfortable was higher than when asked about the collection and use of raw data (e.g. education data). Those polled felt that the greatest benefit of data use would be improvements to their local community (31%). When asked about measures that would enable trust in local council use of data, the two most popular responses were data anonymisation (24%) and strict access and use controls (23%).

The CDEI is now working in partnership with local authorities, including Bristol City Council, to help them maximise the benefits of data and data-driven technologies, by building trustworthy governance that earns the confidence of citizens over the long-term.

Edwina Dunn, Board member for the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, said : “Almost every aspect of local government has required at least temporary reform during the pandemic. Data and data-driven technologies have played an important part in enabling local authorities to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, helping to inform public health measures, protect the most vulnerable in local communities, and keep public services running. With the right support, councils can retain and build on efforts to utilise data effectively, in a way that is in keeping with the expectations of their residents, to provide local services communities can rely on. The CDEI is looking forward to continuing to work with the government, as well as with local authorities and other relevant stakeholders, on this important agenda.”

John Whittingdale, Minister of State

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