95% of councils to invest in data visualisation as they seek to improve services and cost-savings

Councils across England could be on the verge of a real-time data revolution, according to a new survey.

More than 9 out of 10 councils (92%) believe that real-time data is either important or very important to running improved and cost-effective services, the national survey* carried out by UK data experts Software Solved found.

 And despite disparate legacy IT systems, departmental silos and lack of skills and tools being seen as barriers, 95% of local authorities have started or are looking to invest in data visualisation tools in the next 12-18 months.

Anthony Peake, Managing Director of Software Solved, believes leadership teams are starting to realise that new cost-effective data visualisation tools and data management platforms have the ability to bypass these barriers, allowing them to act upon new levels of real-time insight.

He said: “If data is the new oil then too many local authorities are still failing to tap into the well beneath their feet. Local authorities have pared back wherever they can, being forced to spend £7bn less on vital services per year compared with the start of the decade.*

“Councils need to do more with less and do it intelligently. It’s starting to happen with the likes of Camden Council, Devon and Lancashire County Councils unlocking the power of their data to improve services, realise efficiencies and achieve new levels of customer experience, but it’s vital that all authorities take action.”

The investment in data visualisation comes despite 89% of local authorities admitting that it is difficult or not easy to access the data they collect and only 19% saying they are actually effective at using their data.

Anthony Peake said: “Whilst most have yet to unlock the ability of data to improve services, reduce costs and better engage with citizens, the study shows that 97% of local authorities now recognise that improved data visualisation tools would be of value to their council and the vast majority intend to do something about it.

“Software packages that ‘sit on top’ of legacy systems, bypass blockages and easily link with open source data, can be integrated quickly and cost-effectively, and are now easier to use than ever before. The challenge now is to look beyond the perceived blockages and act.”

The survey, which featured unitary, county, city and district authorities across England, forms part of the ‘Local Government Data Revolution’ report published by Software Solved. Alongside the findings, it highlights council success stories and recommendations from experts to help authorities progress their use of data whilst avoiding complicated and costly IT projects.

Camden Council is one authority highlighted in the report.

Richard Olszewski, Camden Council’s Cabinet Member for Finance and Transformation, said: “Camden is home to a world-class tech sector so it is only right that we should also be a leading digital council, and we are pleased to see this reflected in this survey.

“In 2015 we became an open-by-default council, where datasets would be published unless there was a compelling reason not to. Our Camden Data platform has since become home to a significant amount of data, the availability of which is benefitting Camden socially and economically.

“Our new 2025 vision for Camden has been developed with digital and data as key pillars, in terms of our communities utilising the data and ensuring we use data to deliver even better services.”

Another highlighted authority is Devon County Council. Its Chief Officer for Communities, Public Health, Environment, and Prosperity, is Dr Virginia Pearson.

She said: “Good data and intelligence is absolutely crucial. Analysing the information we have gives us the insight we need to work smarter and make better decisions. It’s key to ensuring we are a more effective and efficient organisation. By making that data as open as possible, people can see it and come up with their own thoughts, questions, challenges and even solutions that we might not have thought of. That’s really empowering for communities.”

Nick Hill, founder of Public Sector Customer Service and Digital Transformation Forums, and organiser of LocalGovCamps is not surprised that most councils are only just starting to look in more detail at this aspect of their digital strategy.

He said: “When digital transformation started 20 years ago, it was all about getting services online. It was all about that shop window, the website, and nobody thought about stock control – the data.

“Now there are powerful software packages, that are easy to use and can have a huge impact. Councils are starting to use these to analyse areas where inefficiencies remain and where insight is lacking. The reality is, all the slack has been cut, and so it makes perfect sense to go to that next level of understanding across departments.”

Mike Ward is IT Community of Practice Lead at South Hams District and West Devon Borough Council, two authorities with merged workforces and processes and adopting a modern data strategy.

He said: “There are challenges but we are making good progress. We’ve captured 150 processes and using real-time data visualisation have realised there are a raft of ways to refine and improve services. Now we understand what is causing issues in different processes, we can reboot, be more efficient and truly put the customer first.”

He added: “Part of my role is to look at new technologies and where it might be appropriate for us. There is a very strong business case for better use of real-time data.

“The leadership team can easily see the problems and what causes them. For Members, we will be able to use real-time data and say ‘This is what it looks like today, and two days later you can look again and compare’.  It’s not just about reporting the position as it is now. We can make forecasts and better plan ahead. It’s all about correlations that we don’t even know exist at the moment.”

Doncaster Council publishes a live ‘State of the Borough’ data visualisation.

Jon Gleek, the Council’s Head of Service, Strategy and Performance Unit, said: “It is fundamental to the work that we do as a local authority that we have a strong evidence base for the decisions we make to inform strategy, service design and to transform our services.

“A key component to this is maximising the data assets we own and using them to derive insights. Data visualisation in infographics and easy to use dashboards can ensure that complex data can be more easily understood by everyone, which therefore makes the evidence base accessible, easier to understand and more useful to all.”

Anthony Peake, of Software Solved, said: “I do believe, and the study indicates, we are on the verge of a real-time data revolution. Work that took 2-3 months across old spreadsheets can now be done with dashboards in 2-3 hours, and you don’t have to be an expert in data to do it.

“The barriers identified in the research, including disparate legacy IT systems, information in silos, lack of skills and tools, are the issues that councils are now coming to us to help them overcome.

“Innovative councils are finding the right partners to build data warehouse architectures, harvest data across legacy systems, set up data visualisations and create interactive dashboards, whether that’s providing economic data for local businesses or portals for citizens, interactive reports for elected members, or performance insight for leadership teams. The tools, such as Microsoft BI are available, affordable and easier to use than ever before.”

The report is available at https://www.softwaresolved.com/localgovdata

 Software Solved has also just launched a data visualisation dashboard allowing anyone to explore the 389 expressions of interest from councils looking to run collaborative Local Digital Fund projects www.softwaresolved.com/localdigitalfund