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Data scientists should be embedded in local councils

The government should consider ringfencing £4m to help data scientists sift through local councils’ ‘data goldmines’ and improve their services, an innovation charity has said.

The innovation foundation Nesta said that by using 1% of the government’s £450m digital budget to place analysts and scientists in frontline teams, day-to-day services such as recycling and council tax collection would be more efficient.

As part of a report compiled with the LGA, ‘Wise Council – Insights from the cutting edge of data driven local government’, Nesta also suggested that city-regions bidding for devolved powers should be asked to create a data analysis office as a condition of any devolution deal.

Tom Symons, principal researcher in government innovation at Nesta, said: “Councils are sitting on a treasure trove of potential insights on the communities in which they operate. While many councils are already using it to make services more effective and targeted many more are only just waking up to its potential.

“Embedding experts within these councils could be the catalyst for the culture change we need to see if they are to stay one step ahead of budget cuts and meet people’s evolving needs.”

The report argued that when the government began its austerity programme in 2010, the public sector focused on finding savings by streamlining office services to reduce waste while integrating frontline services such as health, housing and education to make them more effective.

The report cited examples of how local councils are already using data to achieve these two aims but stresses that many are only just coming to terms with its potential.

“Our research found that councils are becoming increasingly sophisticated in how they gather their data, how they manage it, the types of analysis they can perform, and the ways in which they use this to contribute towards positive social change,” the report concluded.

“But … most councils are only just starting to get to grips with all the data they hold, and all the ways they could use it to make improvements. The data held by the local government sector is a potential goldmine of insights into how to improve people’s lives and make communities stronger.”

Positive examples cited by the report include Bristol City Council’s use of plastic sensor-equipped frogs to collect data about damp in properties, and Leeds City Council’s ‘Data Mill North’, an open data portal which saves the council time from responding to Freedom of Information requests.

Nesta recommended to policymakers that co-locating data analysts and scientists in frontline council teams would speed up processes by minimising replication and making existing information more easily accessible to local residents.

The report also advised the LGA to create a knowledge transfer scheme to enable best practice to be shared between councils and choosing a devolved city-region to trial an open ‘data exchange’ with local universities, businesses and charities once it has set up its own data analytics office.

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