Does Big Data = better public services?

10 December 2015

by Claire Halstead Partner

The Spending Review included a commitment to invest £1.8 billion in digital, tech and transformational projects across the public sector, to continue to advance digital, data and technology capabilities. We explore how this might work in practice - focusing on making best use of Big Data.

So what is Big Data? And how can the government make best use of it? Big Data is new and different from the traditional ‘structured’ data that you define, collect and control. Big Data is ‘unstructured’, stemming from new sources of generation - from search engines to smart phones and social media.

But accompanying the huge potential benefits are significant risks if the data is managed poorly. Recent high profile data losses from private sector companies across the globe demonstrate the potential impact. Arguably, perceptions matter more than reality in these situations, with a lack of public trust being a fundamental issue.

Put simply, the public often doesn’t trust the users of Big Data (whether supermarkets or government), believing the data is used for the interests of the organisation. Or, cynicism impacts the perception of Big Data when the public doesn’t believe that much of the data collected is actually useful. But what is the reality of the situation? Where are the opportunities and how can public bodies make best use of such data?

For the most part, simply listening to the customer and using data analytics allows the service provider to learn more about the users - ranging from demographics to why they use the service. This then helps to identify problems before they become large scale issues. But analysing ‘unstructured’ data to combine it with hard business intelligence requires a new approach - synthesising. This requires new and different skills and capabilities to make the most of Big Data- as seen increasingly in cities nurturing open data strategies, i.e. making local data on services such as water or transport freely available.

Big Data can contribute both to the long term improvement of services and also to day-to-day operations. This is clearly seen in caseswhere local authorities inform the public about emergencies relating to bad weather through Twitter, enabling new forms of collaboration between public authorities and citizens.

The government is rightly investing in Big Data, but without also investing in insight - data is just data. Making the most of data requires skills which are generally in short supply, but notably so in the public sector. It is critical that these are developed and, in the interim, augmented.

Alongside building a skills base, public sector leaders must integrate data into their operations through collecting, using and sharing information better. Further, opening up good data with research into analytics will help improve the quality and therefore, the reliability of data to make data-based decisions.

Lastly, to realise the potential of Big Data, there is an important balance to be found between the rights of individuals to privacy and confidentiality and the benefits from sharing information. With these concerns addressed to tackle public cynicism, Big Data has the potential to redefine both public and private services for the better.

To find out more, download our latest report ‘Big Data, better public services’.

If you would like to discuss these issues, or the impact of emerging technology or data and analytics on your industry, then contact our Data & Analytics team.

by Claire Halstead Partner