Improved data analytics and data sharing practices are helping Essex County Council to support public services while adapting to hard-hit budgets.
Essex is one of the largest counties in the UK, with 1.5 million residents, and has numerous district, borough and town councils within it. At the heart of its data plans is the creation of the Whole Essex Information Sharing Framework (WEISF), which sets out guidelines for how data can be accessed by a variety of public sector and not-for-profit organisations in the area.
“It has been signed up to by all public agencies in the county and is being used in anger now to establish information-sharing protocols,” said Essex County Council CIO, David Wilde, speaking at Big Data World conference in London this week.
“[We have] gone on to establish collaborative platforms on which we are sharing information that is legal, is understood, we have permission for and is of the quality that ensures that what comes out from that data is valid and is useful in terms of decision-making.”
One of the successes of the data analytics work has been an initiative to tackle fraud. The council announced last year that it had set up a data sharing scheme to tackle millions of pounds in lost council tax revenues due to errors and fraud. This is supported by use of Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform.
Wilde said: “We have in place a programme where we have taken in multiple data sets that have helped us identify housing benefit fraud, people that have more than one property are renting them out illegally and claiming benefit, or people who are claiming benefit multiple times. And in the county council and for county shared between us and the district, we have managed to identify and bring back £14 million in that period in terms of council tax recovery.”
Making data-sharing work
Crucial to the success of the WEISF project is the close of involvement of all parties using the data.
“One of the things that we did when we started off on this was to make sure that everybody had skin in the game," Wilde said. "People pay to sustain the service, the county council doesn't fund it. It is a shared effort co-founded by public agencies and actually by some private ones, and also by some not-for-profits on the basis that they are funding the ongoing maintenance and development of this framework and underpinning protocols behind it.
"That way, if people pay to use things they tend to pay a bit more attention to actually how they are working and treat it with a bit more respect in terms of what they are there to deliver.”
Wilde said the public sector has, on the whole, not had a great record of managing and using data in the past. However this is an area that Essex County Council is intent on in improving.
“We do have to look within ourselves in public service, a lot of our data is pretty rubbish and what we need to do is make sure that the quality of the data we are dealing with is of a standard that enables us to make sure decisions [around delivering services) are built on safe foundations.
“In Essex we have spent four years cleansing our social care data, in recognition of the fact that if we don't have that data right we could make life changing decisions based on false premises, and that is not underestimating the seriousness with which we need to treat this information.”
Having a well-coordinated data strategy has other benefits too, with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) looming on the horizon. Wilde said that the work council has already carried out around data governance and transparency leave it well placed to adapt to any framework put in place.
“We are lucky we are one of the leaders in the country around information governance and we are working closely with the ICO and others around the implications of GDPR,” he said.
“I take the view that I need to take our population with us around data, and it is a privilege to use what they choose to let us use to actually make those decisions. So GDPR for me isn't a threat in that context, provided you are starting from the right place, and that really bring to life the Whole Essex Information Sharing Framework and how we work that through.”