Researchers at the University of Glasgow said the experience provides key lessons for future data engagement, especially in the context of the Scottish Government’s digital strategy.
Data sharing has been critical to how Scottish local government managed the response to the Covid-19 crisis in the last 12 months, a new study finds.
The report, Scottish Local Government during Covid-19: Data Needs, Capabilities, and Uses, underlines how local authorities embraced the challenge of the pandemic to embark on new collaborative and innovative developments using data to help citizens fight the pandemic.
Researchers at the University of Glasgow found the crisis put a “sudden and great demand” on local authorities, forcing them to adapt quickly and engage in innovation.
This experience provides important lessons for future data engagement, especially in the context of the Scottish Government’s recent launch of a new digital strategy, the university notes.
“What is striking is just how quickly local authorities responded to the Covid-19 crisis by making use of data to inform decision-making and provide essential services to communities. So, data was central to local government’s handling of the pandemic on the ground,” said Dr Justine Gangneux, a research associate at the Urban Big Data Centre, University of Glasgow.
“At the same time, local authorities encountered several data challenges along the way, for example how to deal with patchy data quality, and how to share data across organisations without significant prior sharing practice.”
The Urban Big Data Centre carried out an in-depth analysis of data engagements between autumn 2020 and spring 2021. A total of 31 out of the 32 Scottish local authorities were surveyed along with focus groups including NHS Scotland, Police Scotland, Scottish Government, and several third sector (voluntary) organisations.
“At the same time, local authorities encountered several data challenges along the way, for example how to deal with patchy data quality, and how to share data across organisations without significant prior sharing practice”
The survey found that more than four-fifths of respondents (83 per cent) stated that there was an increase in internal data sharing during Covid-19, four-fifths (79 per cent) indicated the use of new data sources, and three-quarters (74 per cent) confirmed increased data collection.
Significantly, respondents rated the importance of public sector data for managing the pandemic far higher than private sector data and novel (smart) data: nine in 10 respondents found internal public sector data in the early stage of the pandemic to be “very important” and a further 17 per cent “quite important”.
A key aspect of the accelerated data use was the significant increase in data sharing across the public sector, particularly between local authorities and the NHS. This included, for example, shielding data sharing to allow local authorities and the third sector supporting vulnerable Scots with help including food parcels.
Another reported positive outcome of the crisis is the evident commitment to working together across public sector organisations, for example, by using common data sharing protocols and, more generally, engaging in knowledge exchange through various networks such as the Covid-19 Data Intelligence Network.
“So-called ‘smart’ or ‘novel’ data, such as social media, and Internet of Things data, was not found to be in great demand. However, participants saw it play a more important role in the future”
This network was set up by the Scottish Government to minimise the spread of the virus in Scotland by quickly identifying Covid resurgence, clusters and outbreaks using data.
“Our research highlights the need, coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic, for better data sharing and collaboration between local government and the third (voluntary) sector, to optimise the value of data to communities and citizens,” added Simon Joss, professor of urban futures at the University of Glasgow.
“Surprisingly, compared to traditional administrative data generated by public sector organisations, so-called ‘smart’ or ‘novel’ data, such as social media, and Internet of Things data, was not found to be in great demand. However, participants saw it play a more important role in the future.”
To make these achievements during the pandemic last for the long term, the report set outs 15 recommendations to help accelerate data use and innovation in Scotland including:
The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and implemented in collaboration with the Digital Office for Scottish Local Government. ESRC-funded research aims to inform policymakers and practitioners and help make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective.
The Urban Big Data Centre (UBDC) is a research centre and national data service jointly funded by the University of Glasgow and ESRC.
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