Safety in numbers: how data can keep us all safe

Written by Mark Rowe on 17 October 2017 in Feature

Civil Service World brought together a panel of data experts from across the civil service to look at ways of increasing public safety through the better use of data. Mark Rowe reports

Photo: Paul Heartfield

The answer to the biggest data crunching exercise of all, as fans of Douglas Adams’ immortal classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will tell you, is 42. Deep Thought, the super-computer that came up with the answer to life, the universe and everything, then created a 10-billion-year computer programme – called the Earth – to establish what exactly the question was.

The civil service is grappling with similar issues: how to ask the right questions in order to make meaningful use of the vast reams of information now collated and unpicked by technology. Hopefully, they won’t take quite as long as Deep Thought and its successor to work out how best to do this.

Using data more effectively – gathering, understanding, interpreting, sharing – in order to increase public safety was the theme of a round table organised by CSW in partnership with MarkLogic, a software company whose database provides a 360 degree view of data for a range of government agencies. The rationale is that better use of data and data analytics can help law enforcement teams allocate resources more effectively through activities such as predictive policing, spotting suspicious patterns and identifying vulnerable individuals.


The challenge was outlined by Richard Vize, the chair of the round table. He cited the stark warning from Tom Winsor, HM chief inspector of constabulary, that his own institution’s approach to data sharing was hamstrung by “a culture of insularity, isolation and protectionism...there is a need to pool sovereignty”.

Sharing data will be mutually beneficial, said Claudia Sturt, executive director of security, order and counter terrorism at the Ministry of Justice: “A lot of the information we’re getting in the prison and probation system isn’t necessarily useful to us, but might be extremely useful for some of our law enforcement and security partners.”

A wide consensus emerged on the present situation – as articulated by Leigh Morgan-Jones, head of research and analysis at Staffordshire Police, who described a desire “to create a knowledge hub for all public services – but there are lots of barriers to that happening. It requires a culture change”.

If such a shift could be achieved then great and practical benefits could flow in terms of making people safer through early intervention. “If the police have access to the mental health data [of an individual they deal with] they can contact the mental health provider,” said Sarah Henry, director for methods, data and research at the Office for National Statistics. They could also liaise with a co-ordinator dealing with the individual through the Troubled Families Programme. “The ONS has incredible opportunities for linking data,” she added.

Concerns about confidentiality – and breaching data protection rules – cropped up time and again. “I don’t think there is a real conscious desire not to share,” said Aimee Reed, design lead, Change Team, at the Metropolitan Police Service. “Not everybody in an organisation has a culture of data [using] or knows what to do with it.”

Stephen Pitney, network security manager at the Home Office, pointed to the need to strike the right balance between “security and facilitation”.

Henry pointed to an overarching framework where data breaches resulted in multi-million pound fines but there were no fines when a failure to share data resulted in a child dying.

Benjamin Bennett, data and intelligence manager at the London Borough of Sutton, felt that the case for data sharing needed to be a positive one. “We have to start with public perception,” he said. “If you ask the guy walking down the street, they will say they don’t want to have to give the same data to 30 different professionals. There’s a demand from the public for us to integrate their data better.”

Dr Miv Elimelech, deputy director of home affairs at the Cabinet Office Implementation Group, disagreed and suggested that not everyone would have an ulterior motive for resisting the sharing of data. “There have been some monumental leaks and cock-ups and quite understandably that creates distrust among the public. I don’t think members of the public do want 30 agencies sharing their data.”

One solution, suggested Sturt, was to scale up and depersonalise data. “It’s not a question of saying has this person had contact with mental health services or with the Troubled Families team but of scaling that up so you can say how many are with those services, how many people in this place, what proportion of citizens of this area of the country have got the following issues, so we’re not dealing with privacy issues,” she said. “There’s a rich vein we could be exploiting.”

“We want a situation where the system knows the rules,” said Simon Clifford, director of technology and digital transformation at Northamptonshire Police. “When we need information to save someone’s life, we don’t want to wait for the OK before we act. The system needs to be set up for that.”

Quality of data was another concern, along with common standards. “Every organisation describes a person’s hair colour in different ways, their car in a different way. It needs to be done in a meaningful and consistent way,” said Robert Leach, acting CEO of The Police ICT Company.

A need for data literacy was a strong theme throughout the debate. Imran Razzaq, UK sales director for MarkLogic, made the point that “there is no absence of data. It’s about bringing all the data together to get a single view and turn it into actionable intelligence and insight”.

Elimelech acknowledged the concerns that many civil service staff would have. “We need to reassess how we use data in the light of what modern technology can offer us. Everything is moving so quickly that the older ways of looking at data, the ways many of us in the civil service grew up with, are at risk of becoming archaic. People are mindful of the need to upgrade skills but for many, data is still seen as a silo. They’ll say ‘that’s for the specialists, not me.’”

The panel also discussed how best to develop programmes. “You have to start small,” said Bennett. “The best approach is to identify a pilot project and build on that. Implementing grand strategies – they can fall to the depths of the ocean and never be seen again.” Elimelech agreed, saying: “We have to start a little bit smaller if we want to really optimise the aspiration of completely joining things up.”

Meanwhile Leach felt that incentivising public bodies would help. He pointed to the success of the Police Transformation Fund which reorganised IT by removing a slice of the police budget – “in my view that was a work of genius,” he said – that could only be claimed back by policing when forces produced a credible and detailed plan for implementing better digitalisation. “If government was to take some of every [department’s] money away and allow them to bid for it with nationally focused areas of importance for the public then that might be a way to proceed.” Leach’s comment was greeted with general agreement. “The only game in town is to get a handle on the data,” added Clifford.

In concluding remarks, Razzaq pointed to the huge potential for secure, informed data sharing: “The area is so broad, the applicability of solutions is very wide, whether it is early intervention in safeguarding, keeping crime down, countering terrorism, these issues are all very important to the public.”

Roundtable participants (pictured above from left to right): Imran Razzaq, sales director UK, Ireland and EU, Public Sector – MarkLogic; Benjamin Bennett, data and intelligence manager – London Borough of Sutton; Richard Vize, public policy expert, journalist and roundtable chair; Simon Clifford, director of technology and digital transformation – Northamptonshire Police; Roma Chappell, deputy director – Office for National Statistics; Sarah Henry, director for methods data and research - Office for National Statistics; Jon Williams, senior sales engineer - MarkLogic; Aimee Reed, design lead, change team - Metropolitan Police Service; Lisa Barrett, director, data driven department and culture change – Ministry of Justice; Claudia Sturt, executive director of security, order & counter terrorism – Ministry of Justice; Robert Leach, acting CEO – The Police ICT Company; Leigh Morgan-Jones, head of research & analysis – Staffordshire Police; Miv Elimelech, deputy director of home affairs - Cabinet Office Implementation Group. Not pictured: Stephen Pitney, network security manager - Home Office


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