When gathered and analysed effectively, data has the ability to transform both organisations and society. Public sector organisations have access to vast amounts of data and whilst we are certainly seeing greater use of this asset with each passing year, there is still far more we can do to maximise its potential to increase efficiency and deliver better public services.
Putting data at the heart of policy and decision making across all areas of government ultimately leads to greater innovation within the public sector. This is already being recognised with the National Data Strategy, which demonstrates the ambition that exists to make even more progress in this area.
However, there is certainly much more that can be done to improve upon this progress and enhance the current use of data within government. As such, NTT DATA UK, the Cabinet Office, Global Government Forum and the Office for National Statistics collaborated to create the Civil Service Data Challenge (CSDC). The Challenge was designed to bring together suggestions for how to realise the potential of data by asking Civil Servants to submit ideas where they saw a gap in their everyday job, and support them to implementation. The Challenge is ultimately about strengthening the tools and information available to public servants, saving taxpayers’ money, and improving citizens’ lives.
The CSDC launched in March 2021 with a call for civil servants from all grades and all departments to submit their ideas. Nearly 200 submissions were received and nearly 300 civil servants applied to join a team. Applications came from a range of departments, grades and roles, with a sixth working in the digital, data and technology profession. From the brilliant ideas taken forward to ideation, to the networking and teamwork between the team members, the CSDC was an innovative approach to solving today’s problem of maximising the value of Government data, whilst providing engaging learning experiences for civil servants.
The challenge was a great success, showcasing the innovative and creative potential of today’s Civil Service. Whilst there could only be one winner, there are learnings to be had from all of the entries.
Eight ideas were shortlisted with teams coming together to develop their business case, and test the viability to implementation. Each team was supported with digital, data and project management specialists, , encouraging an excellent level of collaboration for the competition. Over time, the participants developed a thoroughly researched plan, evidence and a blueprint to see that idea come to life.
The latter stages of the Challenge included ‘Dragon’s Den’-style pitches to senior leaders and judging panels. The semi-finals took place in October, with four of the eight teams then selected to progress to the final. The finalist teams continued to progress their ideas on improving data sharing and data efficiency across government and once again presented to a panel comprising Alex Chisholm, Chief Operating Officer of the Civil Service; Joanna Davinson, Executive Director, Central Digital and Data Office; Henry de Zoete, Non-Executive Board Member, Cabinet Office; Tamara Finkelstein, Head of the Policy Profession & Permanent Secretary, DEFRA, and myself (is this me or myself?). The final four ideas were:
- Construction Industry Benefit Fraud & Error – By linking together existing datasets, departments could reduce their losses to fraud and error - for example, identifying individuals who are under-reporting their income. Systems such as DWP’s Customer Information System and HMRC’s Construction Industry Scheme, provide real opportunities to greatly enhance the identification of potential fraud and reduce the financial impacts upon both government and the citizens.
- Deploy AI to protect and enhance our peatlands – The UK’s peatlands are currently drying out, emitting around 20 million tonnes of CO2 annually. Blocking moorland drains can reverse this process – but locating them on the ground is a difficult and labour-intensive process. By using AI technology and deploying innovative ‘Generative Adversarial Networks’, drains can be rapidly identified using aerial photography, greatly reducing the cost of protecting these important environments.
- Gather better statistics on the distribution of UK citizens abroad – Using data held across Government and open-source technology, a live data model can be created to show the numbers of UK nationals living, working and holidaying around the world. The data will be used to support activity across Government, including being able to quickly identify UK citizens abroad in an emergency, and the model will be hosted on the ONS integrated data platform, accessible to all Government departments.
- Track prisoners’ social contacts to support rehabilitation – We know that prisoners who maintain close family ties during their sentences are less likely to re-offend, but data on their social contacts is currently dispersed and of variable quality. Bringing this data together and improving its collection would enable prisons to plan additional support for prisoners suffering from a lack of social contact, helping to reduce reoffending rates.
Though there could only be one winning idea, it’s crucial to understand that the Data Challenge was not just about crowning a champion. All of the shortlisted concepts are viable, well-thought-out ideas that should be taken forward. These teams have received continued mentoring and support to take their ideas forward outside of the challenge.
The winning concept
The deployment of AI to protect and enhance UK peatlands was selected as the winning team for its potential to help lock more carbon into the ground, reduce flooding risk, and assist the government to achieve its carbon emissions targets. In addition, the project has the potential to be scaled for application worldwide and a first iteration of the solution can be deployed within a little as three months.
The team behind the peatlands restoration project are receiving continued support to help get the idea into live service, alongside technical advice from NTT DATA UK.
Public sector potential for better use of data
Using data effectively is crucial to the future of the Civil Service and its success. The Civil Service Data Challenge was created to further this vision, engaging Civil Servants to help shape the data-driven future of government. We saw some incredible ideas throughout the competition and are now providing the winning team with a platform to realise the vision of restoring the UK’s peatlands through the application of AI technologies – contributing directly to the government’s mandate of achieving net-zero.
I want to extend a huge congratulations to every participant who brought wonderfully creative ideas to the table. The enthusiasm and commitment shown by all involved has been fantastic to see.
Whilst the Data Challenge helped to forge new partnerships and learning opportunities, above all, it highlighted the untapped potential within the government for data use. Having over 200 ideas on improving data use speaks for itself - there are many innovative ways that better and smarter data can benefit us all.