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CDEI: Local government data use must keep up Covid momentum

The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation says momentum in local authority data use during the Covid-19 pandemic is in danger of being dissipated without central government investment and support for data skills development

Good Covid data work in local government could run out of steam, the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI) has cautioned.

The UK government’s advisory body on the responsible use of artificial intelligence (AI) and data technology has published some analysis on the use of data in local government during the crisis. This is based on a local authorities forum that explored changes to data use during the pandemic and discussed barriers to innovation based on data. The forum is one of a series of AI forums conducted by the centre.

Participants in the forum, according to the CDEI, expressed concerns that progress in data use would not be sustained, with practices reverting to the pre-pandemic status quo. They said uncertainty about whether emergency access to datasets, given in the summer of 2020, would be repealed was a concern. They also feared that enthusiasm for data-driven interventions among decision-makers would wane.

Participating councils included Coventry City Council, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and the London Boroughs of Hackney and Camden.

“Almost every aspect of local government has required at least temporary reform during the pandemic,” said Edwina Dunn, a board member for the CDEI, in support of the analysis, which is embodied in a report titled Local government use of data during the pandemic.

“Data and data-driven technologies have played an important part in enabling local councils to respond to the Covid-19 crisis, helping to inform public health measures, protect the most vulnerable in local communities, and keep public services running. With the right support, councils can retain and build on efforts to use data effectively, in a way that is in keeping with the expectations of their residents,” she said.

James Jamieson, chair of the Local Government Association, said the use of data is one of many factors that councils may consider as part of their decision-making processes. “We’re pleased to be working with the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation to bring together councils from across the country so they can share best practice in this area and be as transparent as possible. The good and ethical use of data will help councils support their communities through the pandemic and into the future,” he said.

Local authorities also have to contend with barriers to data-driven innovation, said the CDEI, including skills gaps, poor data quality, lack of legal clarity and funding challenges. 

The centre’s analysis highlighted data-centric activities carried out during the pandemic. These include the use of a tool called Viper (Vulnerable Intelligent Persons Emergency Response) by local authorities in Essex, which has enabled emergency services to share data in real time.

Others are Argyll and Bute Council’s trial of drone technology to deliver medical supplies across its islands, Glasgow City Council’s online platform to promote social distancing, and Hackney Council’s analysis of internal and external datasets to help it identify residents who are vulnerable to Covid-19.

The report detailed how Hackney Council identified older residents and people with disabilities who live alone, as well as those most susceptible to the economic consequences of lockdown. Hackney was able to use unique property reference numbers (UPRNs) to link datasets that were previously siloed, such as data related to council tax and tenancy deposits.

The CDEI warned that progress is unlikely to be made without increased investment and an improvement in data skills.

“Councils have adapted their services from in-person to online, using technology and data to do so lawfully and securely. I am determined we continue to use everything we have learned to make services better for residents so that local communities keep benefiting from more efficient public services”
Luke Hall, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government

The CDEI also researched, with the help of Deltapoll, public attitudes towards the use of data in local government. It found, in December 2020, 39% of a sample of 2,025 people said they did not know if their personal data was being collected or how it was being used. 

The results, said the centre, suggest citizens are more comfortable with data collection and use by their local authority if explanatory context is provided. Data anonymisation (24%) and strict access and use controls (23%) were found to be measures that would make local council data use trusted.

For central government, Luke Hall, minister for regional growth and local government at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, added: “Councils and council workers have been at the forefront of the response to the pandemic, helping to keep their communities safe, while ensuring essential services have continued throughout.

“From delivering food parcels, medicines and support to clinically extremely vulnerable individuals, to housing rough sleepers quickly, the use of data has been critical. Councils have adapted their services from in-person to online, using technology and data to do so lawfully and securely. I am determined we continue to use everything we have learned to make services better for residents so that local communities keep benefiting from more efficient public services.”

In the report’s conclusion, the CDEI said it would “continue to explore ways of helping local authorities to maximise the data at their disposal” and in doing so it would “seek to highlight the best practice that is often hidden below the surface, as well as to draw in insights and lessons from other sectors”.

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