Enabling BCC to make better decisions using data science techniques

As a co-signatory to the Local Digital Declaration, Birmingham City Council’s Information, Technology & Digital Services are co-creating the conditions for the next generation of local public services, where technology is an enabler rather than a barrier to service improvements, and services are a delight for citizens and officials to use.

Through work being undertaken by our Information Governance team and Insight Programme, we are committed to working together to establish the trust frameworks we need to safely analyse personal data. 

The Insight Programme is enabling the council to become a more data driven insight led organisation by delivering the vision of the Information Management Strategy 2018. It is doing this by driving the adoption of the function, tools and techniques to support the effective lifecycle management of data and the platform and analytics to deliver fast and reliable Insights from data.

A key aspect of this is ensuring that BCC has the right governance, standards and frameworks in place to ensure it’s legal and ethical compliance as it builds its data science capabilities. Data science describes analysis using automated methods to extract knowledge from data. It covers a range of techniques, from finding patterns in data using traditional analytics to making predictions with machine learning. It presents new opportunities for identifying factors for answering important policy questions which might be difficult to find using existing methods. Data science, therefore, offers huge public benefits in creating better evidence-based policy and in making government operations more targeted and efficient.

Data ethics is an emerging branch of applied ethics which describes the value judgements and approaches made when generating, analysing and disseminating data and a core aspect of data ethics is using data science appropriately. The social implications of the data and algorithms used, the practices and the quality assurance processes followed must be carefully considered to ensure this is done well. Increasingly BCC staff from across disciplines will need to gain insight from data and emerging technologies as well as handling data for research activities undertaken by staff with citizens, community groups and in collaboration with partners like NHS and academia. It is crucial that they are equipped to use data-informed insight responsibly with support processes in place.

The Insight Programme is providing the springboard for accelerating the Council's capability in how it develops and manages its ethics and legal compliance. It is establishing and embedding a BCC data & research ethics framework to ensure that these are managed and applied to business operations and research in a coordinated and consistent way, and that they are well integrated into the governance structures and strategy of the organisation.

Example Use Case: East Birmingham

East Birmingham represents a large geographical area with differing wards and neighbourhoods and is an area that has deep rooted challenges. Despite interventions over the past decade, East Birmingham continues to have areas of high unemployment, low skills and poor health. To understand any area in order to make better decisions and a real difference to the lives of the people that live there requires a better understanding and use of the data in new and integrated ways. This use case brings together Birmingham City Council (closed, real time and open) with other data outside of the Council - social media data, data from other organisations in the public sector and other open data presented through visualisations and dashboards. It will provide a service to the business areas and strategic partners to ask new questions about an area and gain new insights that they hadn’t previously had. 

This use case approach presents potential ethical and legal compliance challenges: Anonymised Council data when brought together with data from other sources (e.g. Police crime open data at street level) presents a risk that it might re-identify a person(s) and in terms of ethical issue may for example identify ethnic groupings involved in a crime. It is not clear from the outset what insights will be surfaced and the value judgements and decisions that will be based on those analytical techniques and their accuracy. It is high risk because it is pulling in a disparate mix of datasets with unknown outcomes. A data and research ethics framework will apply the appropriate level of governance to ensure all risks are assessed and managed and how any insights from this use case are applied which could be setting new policy through to delivering services in new and different ways.

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