Many publicly funded organisations face a dilemma. The UK is becoming increasingly diverse and, in order to ensure a fair and efficient distribution of public services, there needs to be a better understanding of how the different minority groups are using these services. The problem however, is that residents are increasingly unwilling to disclose their ethnicity in demographic questionnaires.
At the root of this problem is a misunderstanding by the public of the uses to which ethnic data will be put. Sensitivity arises from a fear that it will be used to target different messages to different people. To people who have struggled to achieve equality under the law this may appear an unwelcome, even Orwellian invasion of their privacy.
For an increasing number of public agencies the solution to this dilemma lies with 'Big Data'. The idea behind Big Data is that with the use of smart algorithms data collected by administrative systems - booking tickets at a theatre for example – can be used to deliver insights about visitors more reliably, rapidly and inexpensively than survey questionnaires. It is this idea that lies behind the success of Google’s search engines and Tesco’s Clubcard.
For example large London venues now routinely use Big Data to identify which minorities they have most difficulty in attracting to their events, which genres are most popular with which minorities and which productions are successful in attracting otherwise hard to reach groups.
This approach reveals some significant findings: Indians are the most likely to book as a group whilst Japanese people often book just for themselves. Iranians, it was discovered, attend exhibitions of modern art. Apparently this is because their culture used to forbid the representation of the human form. This information was obtained by using a sophisticated ethnicity analysis of the names within customer databases.
Clearly some individuals may contest the category that Big Data assigns their name. But the issue here is not to tag any individual in such a way that they will be treated differently but to search for groups that are being under-represented by the service provider. So long as Big Data can generate statistics for the overall population of London, the profile of users of a London theatre can then be compared with profile of 'non-users' to better understand where the gap lies.
This approach translates across from the arts to the public sector. For instance, a southern police force that relies ons social media to communicate 'alert' information used name data to discover that the minority groups least likely to sign up for alerts were Eastern Europeans and Black Africans, not South Asians as had previously been assumed.
For the public sector the 2011 Census is the most up-to-date source of ethnic data. Yet, this is now six years out of date. Using Big Data it is possible to identify the names and postcodes of virtually all UK adults and thereby identify the mix of minority groups right down to the postcode level. Given that Big Data source are are able to update this information in real time it is also possible to monitor change in the size of different minority groups. Comparing results with those from a list of names in 2011 it has become possible to identify at a very fine level of detail the hotspots that are currently attracting each individual minority.
Our analysis has revealed that Barking is the local authority which has experienced the highest increase of non-white British names in the five years since 2011 and within Barking Big Data identifies the southern tip of the borough, along with Wisbech, Boston, Kings Lynn and Corby, as one of the fastest growing Lithuanian communities in Britain.
Many people had expected that time would cause the behaviour of immigrant communities to resemble that of the host population. Big Data constantly confounds this assumption. The Irish continue to dominate the earth-moving and construction equipment leasing industries and Tamils to run our petrol stations. Even one of the most prestigious North London day schools is having to rearrange its sporting fixtures to adapt to South Asian’s dislike of body-contact sports. Children of Chinese origin continue to excel at school but their parents are the least likely to stand for election to the local council. Jews and Hindu Indians are particularly likely to apply to planning departments for 'cross-overs' so they can use their front gardens to park their cars whilst people of Pakistani descent are the least likely to live in social housing.
Equal under the law everyone may be, and everyone is entitled to be treated fairly and with respect by public bodies. But just as we now accept the need to respect the religious customs and holidays of individual faiths, we need to be more sensitive to the fact that members of different cultures express their preferences and values in different ways. Not to know what these differences are is fundamentally disrespectful and asking people to fill in even more survey questionnaires is no longer the most effective method to acquiring these insights.
Professor Richard Webber is founder of Webber Phillips