Dear government, could you be using data more effectively?

‘Mind the gap’. That’s a mantra familiar to many Londoners as they negotiate the capital’s tube system in order to get to work. The link with data may not be apparent immediately.

But it is also highly applicable to Government as it seeks to bridge the gap between how services should – and do work. Although Government departments might use data every day, this doesn’t mean they always use it effectively.

Data rotting away in silos

A true data platform is about so much more than a shiny front end service. It’s about data quality, integration, integrity, governance, provenance and security – much like the tube system.

Think about all the data Transport for London (TfL) is sitting on. Millions of passengers are freely giving TfL details of where they are tapping in and out and when. They fail to use this data in any useful of meaningful ways, bar stating the obvious “this station’s busiest times are 8.30 to 8:45 AM, Mondays to Fridays”.

Up until now, data in government has been held in isolated line of business applications and used for internal reports. This has created data silos across government leaving valuable data left unused and wasting away in proprietary applications, personal network drives, spreadsheets, databases and emails.

And results in many cases of ‘data double up’ across government departments. A simple example is the list of countries that the UK recognises. Both the Foreign Office and HMRC curate and manage separate data lists, therefore, duplicating on efforts.

How much time could be saved if they streamlined this process? A lot. So for goodness sake, set your data free! This data could be used to support the delivery of online, streamlined and efficient services by other departments and third sector as well.

But being data-driven isn’t just about delivering efficiencies. It’s about making government smarter. For instance, the data held on EU migration doesn’t exist because it’s not captured. Bizarrely, what insight is known comes from a series of inconsistent questions asked at different points of entry that are then pulled out. In other words, the data is not reliable and consistent. However, with the right data, policies can be based and evidenced in data, significantly improving their real-world usage and impact.

A technology-driven approach alone cannot deliver data-driven government

In recent years, to break down these data silos and use information more productively, departments have adopted a technology-driven approach. The aim here is to build multiple interfaces between software and systems in order to make data more accessible.

Whilst this has certainly eased the data burden, it has done little to solve fundamental challenges such as quality, formats, or to quickly search, find and apply the right data for the right task. Crucially, and most importantly, it does little to apply a consistent approach to data.

And that’s the crux of the challenge at hand. For the power and potential of a data-driven government to become a reality, there needs to be real ownership and leadership around data. Something a technology-driven approach is not capable of delivering.

Responsive technology equals responsive services. Platforms such as Amazon Web Services, Google and Microsoft Azure are changing government perceptions about how quickly services can be deployed, scaled, supported and delivered. Shortening the “time to value” and enabling the services to evolve rapidly.

No doubt about it, these platforms, coupled with open source and open standards-based technologies are the future. They promote an ecosystem where the focus is on service, usability and agility; not locking you into one way of thinking. They help to create a common platform.

By moving towards an open platform, the government can be at the heart of an open data movement that benefits commerce, giving an opportunity for new companies to open and flourish.

Take the Postal Address File. Whilst the UK has relinquished this information to a private company, the US released high quality, machine readable postal address data. The Postal Address File in America spawned a niche industry, which was built purely using open information as its foundation. Companies have been able to expand their services to cater for this industry or fill a newly created hole, both of which are undeniably positive.

The answer to truly data-driven Government

To become a data-driven entity, the government needs to embrace an all-encompassing data management strategy (DMS). The key difference between this and a technology strategy is that under a DMS, the government can improve the reliability, credibility, quality and integration of data through the following:

In other words, it makes data meaningful.

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