How Camden Council uses data to transform public services

As constant streams of people and vehicles flow around London, so does data: Millions of data points are generated each time a Londoner steps out of their front door, and the council, with their thousands of residents and multiplicity of services, must be one of the most adept organisations at harnessing these.

Sudip Trivedi is head of the data, analytics and connectivity for Camden Council, a London borough that is home to around 250,000 residents and 30,000 businesses. He sat down with Computerworld UK to discuss how the invisible magic of data is transforming the ways the borough provides services and meets the needs of residents.

The vision for the borough for the next several years is laid out in their Camden Plan, which represents the culmination of a collaborative effort of residents, people from the business community and anyone driven by a desire to shape the council's services. Trivedi refers to this collaboration as ‘co-design’, which is a pivotal element in how the borough approaches its responsibilities.

Trivedi aligns a move to new offices, in the stylishly redeveloped Pancras Square, with the beginning of a push for going paperless and overall digital transformation within the council. “We've been in that building for about the last three years now, and we've had a vision which has digital and data as key pillars of how we deliver services,” he says.

For Camden Council, data is essential to forming a holistic view of the borough’s residents. “When we use services, when we review them with a systems thinking principle, the outcomes won't be a siloed service view around adults and children for example, it will be about the view of the family,” says Trivedi.

He says they cannot fully understand a household without access to the relevant data, all of which is collated in the borough's Resident Index. “That is essentially the view of where our households are, and what we know about them based on the data that we have available to us,” Trivedi explains.

He uses the example of a fictitious resident, ‘Fred Bloggs’, who may first become known to the borough in the context of the housing services. However, the resident index provides much more information based on other services the same resident has interacted with - using the library, buying a parking permit, or engaging with the council’s call centres, for example. “So we can create that perspective of Fred Bloggs, which then helps us understand what is happening in a particular household,” says Trivedi.

This can allow the council to begin to tailor interventions based on personalised information, and can result in a much more humane approach in their interactions. An example Trivedi uses is a household that has accumulated debt above a certain, accepted level. In cases of rent arrears, typically a chain of events that could include serious actions such as the involvement of bailiffs and the initiation of a legal process would be triggered solely by the household hitting this predetermined level of debt.

But this is changing. “What we've started to look at is actually, that is a very siloed view,” says Trivedi, “because we need to understand why the household is struggling in the first place.”

Immediately, this opens up a far more complex and coherent picture of a household. For example, Trivedi says they may discover a household has been involved with services dealing with domestic abuse, or recent unemployment.

“We bring a lot of information together, a lot of transactional information about that household that then links back to them,” says Trivedi, which enables them to see, "‘Okay, this person has a housing rent issue, but actually they also have attendance issues at schools and they're known to us through having a social care package' - that kind of puts that family in perspective.”

In this way, data insights can actually instruct the re-designing of services and interventions.

Collating all of this information from different services in one accessible place has been tricky. The council is responsible for around 600 lines of business. For example collecting your rubbish is just one line of business. “It's really dealing with a lot of separate, interrelated, siloed businesses in effect, that are trying to join up together,” says Trivedi.

Another important way in which the borough is conceptualising data is as shared. “We want to go beyond the current problem and transparency targets,” says Trivedi, highlighting that Camden signed up to an 'open by default' charter as part of the Open Data Initiative. “What that means is that any information that isn't sensitive, that we should publish for public good or for statutory reasons, we want to be able to publish in an open way,” he says.

Trivedi says that all councils are obligated to publish some statutory registers, encompassing planning applications and licencing applications for example. “Now we choose to publish this in the open, which means they are available on open data platforms,” he says. Around 400 data sets ranging across the different services they provide are accessible here.

This data can then be used freely by third parties. For example, Trivedi mentions that a number of app developers have incorporated this data to improve services for Londoners. An example of such an app is Citymapper, which has used transport data to improve the accuracy of its route planning capabilities, and even launch its own minivan service in the area.

This data is also very useful internally, helping the council to deal with the freedom of information requests and general queries it receives. Trivedi gives the publishing of penalty charge notices as an example of an open data initiative that has reaped rewards for the council.

“When we decided to publish this, it was quite a process internally to get to the point where everyone agreed this was the right thing to do,” he says. However, since publishing, the council has discovered they’re saving around 45 percent in officer efforts in certain areas. The extra funds have been ring-fenced for the provision of better services.

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

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