Richard Godfrey 05 April 2019

The Golden Record: creating the Smart Council

Most of us are aware of the Smart City concept, but few understand how to start working towards it.

The issue lies partly in the use of the word ‘city’, which excludes the vast majority of local authorities, but there is also too much focus on the technology, devices and sensors and not enough on the data. Whilst these tools are undoubtedly important, without understanding the why, what or the how to use the information they provide then it very quickly becomes another IT project destined to fail.

So how do we make it relevant for all? First, drop the word ‘city’ and replace with council. Then secondly, we need to strip the concept right back to actually understanding what the issues are in the areas in which we live and the problems that we want to solve. Moving towards a Smart Council is inherently about enhancing the quality of life for residents, in the many forms that this can take, be it health, wealth or efficiency.

Councils have a wealth of data on their citizens, but this disparate data is often stored in multiple places and within departmental siloes. This insular way of working hinders progress. The reality is that local authorities could be making life easier by having a clear strategy for joining up data. The information is all there; it can give a real insight into how people are living their lives and the impact on their health and wellbeing.

As a council, you will hold benefit data, possibly employment data, residents ages, data on social care, homelessness, maybe even waste data, and more. The list of data seems endless but each bit is part of a jigsaw of data that can provide a valuable insight into the interventions required to improve the lives of residents.

More progressive councils are already pulling partial data sets together to gain a complete picture of their citizens. However, we should go one step further and rather than focus on the individual we should look to initially create a single view of the household.

Why the household?

To truly understand all residents, you need to understand everything about them and their household; this extends from education to benefit entitlements to council tax and care requirements. If you start to collate this information then you have better insight, and can marry this with demographic information from the Government to create a comprehensive map of what an area actually looks like – and if intervention is needed.

Understanding the impact of the home environment is key to ensuring citizens have the best chance of living a healthy and happy life by delivering the right intervention at the right time. The home is also a static resource that doesn’t move or migrate between council boundaries.

Invisible links

Take the education system. The school does its job educating the student, sets them homework and then sends them home; but what if their grades fail and their attendance declines?

In today’s council, this information will only be available to the school and the education department, and it’s unlikely that they will have access to any other council data. In this instance decisions will be made without the full information available.

We know that schools are designed to give children the best environment for learning. But do we think about their home life, and how that is impacting their studies? Most children do their homework in a completely different environment. What if that environment was noisy, cold, dark, potentially damp, and overcrowded? Now compare that environment to a child who goes home to a large house, that’s heated, on a quiet cul-de-sac, with no siblings to interrupt them. Who has the advantage?

With access to the correct data, we understand that it’s not lack of effort, but the location of where they do their homework. If the homework is therefore of a poor level and that child feels despondent then this could lead to poorer attention in class, and possibly non-attendance. The solution could be twofold: the housing department could intervene in the home - fix the damp, improve the heating and fit double glazing to soundproof the windows. This is a capital cost but could provide huge long-term benefits to the child.

The second option could be to then run a homework club at the school and have the child do their homework in a more suitable environment. This is all hypothetical, but shows how data from a wider source could deliver more appropriate interventions than by using siloed departmental data. The same will be true across a myriad of council services not using a wider range of data sets available to them.

Understanding the small ways in which areas of a person’s life can link up can allow a council to identify areas of concern, and identify how best to deploy support. By using data creatively in a meaningful way, then and only then can you have the best view and create a better place to live.

Opening up opportunities

If a local authority is willing to apply collaborative measures, collate their data, and make this commitment to the household approach, then how does it all work?

Permission to use the data will always be forefront in any problem relating to citizen information. Recording and keeping personal data will always be the choice of the citizen, but by showing tangible outcomes of using the data and making Smart concepts a reality will help with this. Look at small opportunities to collate data across departments and provide evidence of enhanced decision making based on this.

Currently most councils are set up to deliver services vertically through single services instead of horizontally or pan-council. The same home or household will touch a council in multiple areas and have data held in multiple systems. Creating that single view of the household will alleviate this and help councils deliver better services, as well as those residents within each household. Implementing a CRM will enable the council to set the platform to start to capture this information in the right format, but the true value will only be delivered once it is joined up to multiple datasets.

This can be achieved by implementing one platform across the entire authority. Building the front and back end together with APIs where legacy systems hold date and enables them to join it up and access data from all departments. Then analysis can be done with business intelligence tools from organisations such as AWS. This will lead to better understanding by quickly and easily pinpointing patterns that can then drive transformation.

By laying these foundations, every council, large or small, can adopt this Smart approach to build better insight into the household, creating the Golden Record to become a Smart Council.

Richard Godfrey is account director at Arcus Global

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