How should cities think about the role of data in their Covid recovery?

There has been little “good” about Covid’s impact on individual lives. Yet — clutching for silver linings — it may just be that we could emerge from this crisis having made our cities stronger, more resilient places. In this article, I’ll explore how that might be possible in relation to how cities use post-pandemic data.

Thinking about recovery

What role does data play in delivering a strong recovery?

I’d suggest city authorities’ responses are likely to fall into the following four categories: Keep, Fix, Develop and Underpin. Let’s explore each in turn. I’ll give specific examples from what I’ve seen happening in London.

Keep

As part of their Covid response, city governments will no doubt have implemented some measures that are noticeable improvements on what came before, which they’ll wish to maintain.

A key example we’ve seen in London is how boroughs have broken down team and organisational silos to identify and support vulnerable groups of people. Building a picture of who’s vulnerable requires pulling together data from many different sources. In some cases, those sources will different teams within one local authority: adult and children’s social services, teams looking at demographic modelling, council tax, business rates, volunteering coordination, and so on.

In other cases, data on key vulnerability factors is held by different councils. A key issue that’s come to prominence in recent weeks is that councils don’t have visibility of which local children receive free school meals if they attend school in a different borough. The London Office for Technology and Innovation (LOTI) has worked with information governance leads to enable this data to be shared between boroughs during the Covid crisis. Many may wish to keep that arrangement in place for the recovery period to ensure that no vulnerable child slips through the net due to an arbitrary blind spot based on their school’s postcode.

Fix

The crisis has revealed some areas where city or national data infrastructure is broken and needs fixing.

One such area is the provision of death registrations data. In England, all deaths must be registered with the local registration service. The 2017 Digital Economy Act made it possible for local registration services to share information directly with local authorities to carry out a public function. However, very few places have established a data-sharing agreement to do this as the process is complicated, time-consuming and not well publicised. In an initiative started by Social FinanceThe London Office of Technology and Innovation (LOTI) and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) are working to help boroughs get more timely access to this vital information so families can be better supported.

The Innovation Opportunity

I’ll pause at this point to note that there’s a risk that cities’ approaches to recovery are confined merely to keeping or fixing things. That would be a huge missed opportunity. The real potential — and opportunity to innovate — lies in our next two categories.

Develop

During the Covid crisis, we’ve witnessed a number of interesting trends that could be developed into bolder, more impactful changes. I’ll give two examples that relate to data.

The first is the speed of information governance (IG). Information governance is the process by which organisations ensure that they’re processing and/or sharing data in a way that’s legal, ethical and secure. Prior to Covid, when multiple London boroughs wanted to share data with each other, the IG process for some projects took up to six months. During the crisis, however, creating a pan-London Information Sharing Agreement to enable boroughs to share data on children in receipt of free school meals took just three days. This is confirmation that it’s possible to do things responsibly and at pace. We plan to build on that momentum to streamline IG for future pan-London projects.

The second trend has been the appetite for more dynamic — and preferably real-time — data. As public sector organisations have sought to respond to the crisis, the limitations of relying on static weekly, monthly or annual figures have become apparent. Leaders are demanding greater insight into what’s happening at a much more granular level. London city government is already looking at real-time data from sources such as Transport for London to understand how patterns of travel are changing. As factors such as transport usage, high street activity and use of public spaces become deeply important in understanding the nature of recovery, investing in providing more dynamic data could make a real difference.

On this front, there’s recent work to build on. LOTI and the GLA’s recent IoT week highlighted how data from smart street infrastructure could benefit Londoners. Similarly, work by the London Data Commission on using dynamic datasets from companies (e.g. from utilities, mobile network operators, retailers and so on) for public good should be explored further.

Underpin

Our final category is arguably the most important. While all cities will want to ensure they have a strong response to the specific challenges relating to Covid, a key lesson of the last couple of months has surely been that they need to be ready to respond rapidly to changing and unpredictable needs. To do that well, cities must have core foundation stones in place that enable them to collect, share, analyse and act upon data well.

I’ve previously written about the many barriers that make data collaboration hard, from old stovepipe technologies to suppliers who charge councils for data access, and from a lack of data standards to differing approaches to information governance. Now is the time to finally address these barriers — to fix our plumbing — and ensure we can rapidly use data to meet our needs.

We’ll be pushing for several specific measures in London:

  • We should ensure that every local government tender and contract explicitly states that boroughs get full and free access to their system data.
  • For new technologies — particularly IoT devices used in smart street infrastructure that monitor critical urban metrics like congestion, light and air pollution — we should agree common data standards that allow the data to be shared and analysed across the whole city.
  • We should use the London Datastore as our default data technology platform.
  • We should harmonise boroughs’ information governance tools and approaches to ensure we don’t return to days of taking six months to finalise each data sharing agreement.
  • And we should invest in skills: not just in data analysis, but in data science, data visualisation, information governance and cybersecurity to ensure that we have the right people with the right talents to make it all happen.
Conclusion

Within the local government data community, many of the issues outlined above have been discussed for years. Yet action has been slow. For the first time I can remember, the vital importance of data — and ensuring leaders, managers and front line staff can access it when they need it — is receiving national attention.

That attention can and should be turned into action. Action to keep the new things that are working well. To fix what’s broken. To develop emerging trends into more substantial changes. And to underpin it all with the core foundations stones that will allow us to use data well, no matter what comes next.

Let’s not let this crisis go to waste.

By Eddie Copeland, Director of London Office of Technology & Innovation at London Office of Technology and Innovation

To find out more, follow the author on Twitter.

Navigate the new normal with us

This article is part of the Post-Pandemic Places Innovation Brief – a collection of insights and analysis focused on innovation opportunities in the post-Covid era. If you are part of a business of any size, a research institution or government organisation interested in exploring post-pandemic innovation opportunities in built environment, mobility, transport, critical infrastructure or local planning, get in touch with us at info@cp.catatplt.org.uk to take the conversation forward.

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