The future of data – from cities to philanthropy

The conversation at the City Data conference hosted by Nesta on 24 May 2018 ranged from the ethics of algorithms to using avatars to help guide planning applications. The content was aimed at local authorities but the conversations were applicable to all sectors. I was one of the few attending from a social innovation background, with the majority of participants representing London boroughs and other UK councils, counties, and cities.

The questions and conversations were similar to those we’re exploring as part of our new global project exploring how data can be used to help cross-sector partnerships address complex problems, with a specific focus on the role of philanthropy. We are highlighting successful global examples to inspire others, curate an action-led dialogue around the capabilities of data-enhanced systemic change around social challenges, and explore the role and entry points for philanthropies to engage and enable data-driven ecosystems.

I took away the following from the City Data conference that resonated with our work with foundations:

1) Focus on the plumbing

Paul Maltby, Chief Digital Office of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government summed up his speech with the slide ‘It’s time to fix the plumbing’. There is a need to focus on the boring, back-end infrastructure – whether that’s at a local government level or a data collaborative or within the sector as a whole. Plumbing can be in reference to the systems, storage, network and the interconnection of data. We also heard this from multiple sources – from increasing the efficacy of integrated data hubs to the infrastructure of data collaboratives, like open source platform Magic Box at Unicef, to those working on a systems level and campaigning for open governance in Canada.

Maltby was specifically reminding the City Data audience of the need to get back to the basics before we move too quickly forward and jump the waves of maturity. The first wave was useable websites, second wave was user-led designed services and the third was automation – through AI and robotic.

2) Data affects the whole organisation

Quite often, data can become siloed in organisations. Left to the IT departments or the ‘nerds’ in the corner. Just like the risk of separating innovation, this often doesn’t reflect the current or future needs of an organisation. A quote that stuck with me from the day was from Doteveryone, which campaigns for a fairer internet: ‘‘It is somehow still socially acceptable for leaders to say they don’t understand the changes that are being brought into our lives by digital technologies, as though it’s some kind of niche topic that only specialists need to bother themselves with. Digital technology isn’t niche – it affects most aspects of our lives, and most aspects of the strategy and operations of most organisations’.                                     

Neill Crump, the Chief Data Officer at Worcestershire Office of Data Analytics summed this up perfectly when he said ‘we first hired a change & communications analyst, not a data analyst. This is about whole organisational change’

Working and integrating this mindset and new tools across the organisation is by no means easy, but it’s important. One to watch is Essex Police and their work with Nesta on modern slavery. They are collaborating with multiple agencies (both public and private) and across departments to create a data sharing platform – a place for combined expertise and actionable insight.

3) There is a need for the ethical debates

Key questions emerged at this conference and in our research and beyond on trust, privacy and protecting the public interest.

Although this field moves very fast, there is a need to remember to create the space for these debates and ensure that we have the user voice and communities in the room.  Rachel Coldicutt of Doteveryone reminded the conference of the need to remember humanity and people first, not the tech.

Allegheny County in the USA have created a hugely successful tool that uses predictive algorithms to better detect child maltreatment by scanning across datasets, something that was physically impossible for humans to do. The key to their success has been through constant consultation with the community, independent evaluations and the ability for human oversight through trained social workers.

The potential for this field is huge- to work smarter and faster and hopefully have a bigger impact. Spaces like the City Data conference and SIX’s work with philanthropy are important to share, learn and exchange and push this field forward.

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