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CDEI report on local government use of data during the pandemic

The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI) has published new analysis on the use of data in local government during the COVID-19 pandemic. It draws on findings from a forum attended by local authorities, in which they explored changes to data use during the pandemic and discussed barriers to data-driven innovation, as well as new research into public attitudes towards local data use.

Key findings:

  • The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the innovative use of data at a local level, with a range of data-driven interventions launched or repurposed during the pandemic. Examples include: the use of the ‘VIPER’ tool by local authorities in Essex, which has enabled emergency services to share data in real time; Argyll and Bute Council’s trial of drone technology to deliver vital medical supplies across its islands; Glasgow City Council’s online platform to promote social distancing; and Hackney Council’s analysis of internal and external datasets to help them identify residents who are vulnerable to COVID-19.
  • Health data has been shared with local authorities in new ways. For example, local authorities have received access to the NHS shielding patients database, allowing authorities to better target support, including food parcels and pharmacy deliveries, to vulnerable individuals.
  • For sustainable adoption, the governance of new technologies needs to be informed by engagement with local citizens to ensure that it is trustworthy. New polling shows that 50% of people want to engage with their local authority on how data is used to make decisions.
  • Levels of understanding around how local authorities use data was extremely varied: 39% said that they did not know if their personal data is being collected or how it is being used. The results suggest that the public are more comfortable with data collection and use by their local authority if context is provided.

However, representatives convened by the CDEI expressed concerns that progress would not be sustained, with data use practices reverting to the pre-pandemic status quo. Reasons for this include: uncertainty around whether emergency access to datasets will be repealed; enthusiasm for data-driven interventions among decision-makers waning; fear of misjudging the public mood on what is an acceptable use of data; and reluctance among local authorities to be a “first mover” in what is perceived to be a high risk environment. Local authorities are also grappling with long-standing barriers to data-driven innovation, including skills gaps, poor data quality, lack of legal clarity and funding challenges.

In the report the CDEI warns that progress is unlikely to be made without dedicated action from central and local government. Without increased investment and an improvement in data skills, local authorities will struggle to retain and build on recent progress. This is a key ambition outlined in the government’s proposed National Data Strategy.

Full report can be accessed here.

Next steps

The CDEI is now working in partnership with local authorities, including Bristol City Council, to help them maximise the benefits of data and data-driven technologies, by building trustworthy governance that earns the confidence of citizens over the long-term. It is particularly keen to help local authorities that are less mature in their use of data, including rural and district councils.

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