Has COVID-19 magnified the need for joined up data?

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone an uncompromising light on the public sector’s use of data. In this article, data specialists from Agilisys, and its data partner Infoshare, share their thoughts on the impact the pandemic will have on data sharing and the long-term thinking around joined up data.

How has the pandemic demonstrated the value of joined up thinking and effective sharing of data?

Pamela Cook, CEO, Infoshare: The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a spotlight on some of the effective data sharing already taking place and removed some of the people-led barriers to sharing data that have hindered progress in the past. Typical barriers included culture, fear of exposure, a reluctance to share, unnecessary paperwork, and a misunderstanding of what was and was not permitted. Removing these has been instrumental to the surge of effective projects using shared data that we’ve seen this year.”

Chris Hyde, Principal Consultant: Data and Insights, AgilisysOur public sector colleagues state that they have never seen anything like the data sharing that’s happened under COVID-19, to the extent that many parts of the sector are trying to ‘bottle’ the lessons and lock in the new ways of working before the opportunity, tragically bought as it has been, dissipates. 

The most striking fact is that the new sharing is not necessarily underpinned by powerful technology or even new investment in data – it is simply because existing barriers have come down, allowing data that was mostly already there to flow across formerly blockaded borders. In flowing in this way, it has enabled public services to work together to protect people, while contributing to unprecedentedly positive views among the public towards both health and social care. 

Across public services, people feel that this is the way it should have always been – so the case for helping the good to stick around is unquestionable and vital. 

Ben Scully, Senior Consultant: Data and Insights, Agilisys: “COVID-19 has reminded us that with a clear safeguarding objective, strong senior mandate, and commitment to action, the public sector can work collaboratively and at pace when it comes to data innovation. However, it also demonstrated how far we have yet to go before joined up thinking can become business as usual.

The need to make data driven decisions was clear from day one, yet the often manual gathering and sharing of this data cost hundreds if not thousands of staff hours every day across the public sector. 

As such, the sector is seeing tangible examples of why you need a firm data foundation, with the technology, policies and maintained data assets that allow you to us and share data flexibly without mounting costs. 

The concept of joining up data to improve efficiency, do more with less and improve outcomes is nothing new. Why has it taken a pandemic to remind us of this need and what went wrong last time the concept was front and centre of discussions? 

Mark Randall, Head of Delivery, Infoshare: Last time a significant push was made for joined up data was on the back of several government reviews of why social services had missed obvious links, leading to missed actions and, unfortunately, disastrous outcomes. 

Regrettably, some of the work we have done with local authorities (including connected education, social, police and health services) to aid data sharing had to be abandoned, due to spending cuts to the programmes and departments responsible. Whilst there was not a recent tragedy in the headlines, there was a tendency for systemic amnesia of past lessons in the face of dwindling budgets. 

Richard OnslowSales Director, Infoshare: As Mark said, previous focus on this area was diverted when budgets suffered the axe of austerity. Data driven initiatives were considered a nice to have, not a necessity and so were often one of the first things to go.

However, I think the pandemic has now shown organisations that in fact the opposite is true – accurate, connected data is now a basic requirement that organisations need to improve service provision and increase operational efficiency. 

ChrisProblems with data connectivity, quality and usefulness are not new, but normally people don’t die as a result of not fixing those problems. This pandemic, with its terrible loss of life, has concentrated minds on the ‘need to share’, instead of the older, and superseded, ‘need to know’ basis. 

COVID-19 demonstrates very clearly the value of data across a range of easily recognised measures – the number and location of infections and deaths, the supply of PPE, the individual tracking of travellers, and so on. The implications if data is not available or trusted, or if it is known but ignored, are also understood, as demonstrated by the huge number of avoidable deaths in care homes arising from discharges from hospitals of infected people. 

Most big stories about data in recent years have been based on rights, such as GDPR and the right to be forgotten, or scandals arising from breach or misuse of personal data. These are hardly likely to encourage people to focus on the need to share rather than simply the need to protect, which is important all the time but reaches life and death proportions in a year like 2020. 

Pamela: Early on, the pandemic highlighted some significant issues with both the lack of joined up data and the lack of care taken to ensure the accuracy of the data. This was because responsive initiatives needed to be up and running quickly, and siloed data littered with errors was a huge stumbling block.  

For instance, some local areas were unable to accurately identify their most vulnerable citizens and needed to rely on local volunteer groups to identify them instead. Another example was when errors in citizens address data led to personal and sensitive letters being sent out to the wrong addresses.  

These are just two examples, but they and others highlighted the need for agencies to share data and share it quickly, to mitigate harm and protect those most in need. Before the pandemic, it was all too easy to hide behind barriers and put it on the ‘too difficult to do’ list. 

BenThe pandemic necessitated action more so than any public crisis in living memory – and risk appetites shifted accordingly. The single biggest obstacle to joined up data and services in the past were concerns around joint accountability, but only partial delivery responsibility for risks and outcomes. Near universal political and public support to try, test and innovate new approaches embedded an almost entrepreneurial mandate that has rarely been forthcoming before. 

What can we do differently this time around to avoid the renewed focus on joined up data being a momentary spike? 

BenThe manual and costly nature of data sharing, as well as the realities of home working, has compelled individual organisations to invest in cloud infrastructure and collaboration tools such as Teams and their underlying data assets. This already provides a stronger foundation on which to build multi-agency data solutions than we had before. 

However, it also provides a risk. If the public sector wants to pursue greater sharing between organisations, it must align its transformative investments by committing to at least a conceptual view of where they want to be – with an accompanying set of objectives and principles. Using that as a springboard allows partners of differing maturities to move at different paces, whilst ensuring that we all arrive at the same destination of evidence-led, citizen-centric services. 

ChrisWe should not fetishise individual projects or activities. A vulnerability index in a local authority, for example, would be a powerful tool next time a crisis occurs (a flood, an environmental disaster, another pandemic). But unless it’s underpinned by all of the foundations that make it work in perpetuity – such as an organisation-wide data strategy, people with the right skills, and well-oiled data sharing with partners – it will eventually fall by the wayside, become obsolete, or simply persist while becoming ever more cumbersome and lacking in value. In each case, it will eventually be cut, and then it won’t be there next time. 

Part of this is recognising that not all investment in data will be recouped – at least, not in a single organisation’s cashable savings. But imagine if there had been a national or federated public health database by type of need, underpinned by mobile-enabled contact tracing for practitioners and trusted data connections across public services, when COVID-19 hit. This would have required long-term investment, not solely in data, which didn’t pay for itself for many years – but in the end, it could have saved the economy many billions or even trillions if it allowed lockdowns to be prevented because testing, tracking and tracing was so good. It’s happened in other countries this time – we should invest in making sure it happens here next time. 

Pamela: Fortunately, I think the message is already received – the National Data Strategy and the newly released Government Data Quality Framework support the need for joining up accurate data for the good and benefit of all. 

Richard: We have been able to prove the value of organisations working together and sharing their data for the benefit of citizens. Our job now is to challenge any attempts at reimposing unnecessary barriers, and work towards creating a new status quo. 

 

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