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UK to boost data science efforts in citizen services

Government Digital Service launches Data Labs to enhance services with tools such as artificial intelligence and natural language processing

The UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS) has launched a new initiative to boost government services and information with data science.

Central to a GDS transformation agenda, the Gov.UK Data Labs division is intended to evolve the government’s approach to using data to develop and improve products and services. The team will be expanded in 2020 and will focus on the provision of data insights to government departments, as well as personalisation and development of infrastructure to enhance the government’s vision of data-driven citizen services.

At present, GDS uses quantitative and qualitative data to understand aspects such as user volumes and page interactions, as well as testing and feedback analysis.

More recently, the team has been focusing on enhancing user experience as people rely more on online services, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the GDS, Gov.UK has received 1,000 daily comments on average with citizen enquiries about government services during the crisis, on topics from furlough schemes to food deliveries during lockdown.

According to the digital service, the comments, combined with analytics capabilities, can provide indicators on user needs online and potentially provide information for policy changes, but that involves a great deal of manual tagging and analysis, and the lack of scalability of the current set-up prevents data being used effectively for these purposes.

To handle the complexity and reap the benefits of working with data, the Gov.UK Data Labs was created to combine the GDS data science and user experience capabilities to assess issues across the whole Gov.UK domain and what can be further automated to ensure delivery at scale.

In a blog post, senior product manager Ganesh Senthi and Matt Gregory, senior data scientist at the new division, said Gov.UK’s data function is working to ramp up use of anonymised data to improve user journeys.

To deal with feedback on user services, for example, an intent and feedback explorer tool has been built to unite disparate qualitative and quantitative sources of comments, using natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning to categorise, theme, and present trends in feedback over time for a page, service, group of services, or topics such as Brexit or Covid-19.

According to Senthi and Gregory, the new team is now working on Gov.UK journeys and data associated within the primary domain, but the idea is to use external data sources such as Google Trends, or data from other government departments and public bodies, which will be encouraged to deliver access to anonymised performance data on digital services.

The new team is also evolving the use of graph technology and its potential uses on Gov.UK, including question answering, supporting content around government services with search engines and other third parties, cross-platform sharing of government-supplied content, and as an analytical tool for disciplines such as content and service design across government.

Read more about the Government Digital Service

Currently, graphs on Gov.UK contain content attributes such as page-level HTML, the topic a content item is tagged to, the publishing organisation, document type, and dates. The intention, said Senthi and Gregory, is to be “more granular and detailed”, and identify attributes including things (such as passports), people (such as ministers), places (such as Ireland) and eligibility criteria (such as costs and age) and add this information using NLP and AI to about 450,000 content items on Gov.UK, so that graphs become more valuable for the government.

Also, the idea of “consent-based personalised experiences” on Gov.UK will be explored, according to the new GDS data team. The data division will also seek to “empower” teams across Gov.UK by increasing use of data insights and literacy.

The plans to enhance the use of data to deliver more personalised services to citizens follow controversy sparked in September 2019, when government officials insisted there was “nothing sinister” in plans to gather user information through the website.

Alison Pritchard, interim director general at GDS, said work to analyse web traffic alongside other user data is purely intended to offer more joined-up services by better understanding what information users want.

“Are we trying to do anything more than you’d expect any organisation that has a complex web portal?” she said at the time. “No, absolutely not.”

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