Operational Challenges in Cities

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Most cities interviewed are split into departments with a clear role/domain/responsibility. Departments tend to be sub-divided, so that for example Environment and Planning will include Planning and also Housing. Departments will typically be arranged with a director linking day to day activities to longer term projects and a number of officers carrying out day to day tasks. Within such arrangements there is often a distance between the analysis of data and models and decision making in the day to day operation.

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One issue affecting data management has been the budget cuts enforced on councils where the staff resource is no longer available to maintain the data repository. In these cases, often an individual has taken on extra responsibility because they are familiar with the processes. The problem with this is that it is not a robust system, it relies on a motivated individual to put in additional time, and they understandably focus on the datasets they know well (which leads to inconsistencies).

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Within the four cities engaged through this project “intelligence” or “information” units have also been formed. These sit outside the typical departments – either above or below – but the intention is to help to coordinate across departments by collating data in a single place which is then available to all departments.

These units collect and standardise data collected by departments or from national level datasets (such as ONS), and in some cases provide visualisation and analysis. They also start to fulfil an additional role in terms of opening data to the public. There are many issues around privacy, anonymization and aggregation, and it is these units that start to prepare and publish open data. In some cases this is done using a body that presents itself as an independent entity.

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Data on physical characteristics such as land or property presents relatively few issues around sharing, however data on population is much more difficult. To ensure anonymity of people, data where there are less than six examples is aggregated. There are specific restrictions on the use of data relating to social services – health data, children services, adults services. If these issues can be overcome it is understood that there are major benefits in linking health records to social service and benefits records.

One of the major benefits of opening data is that it provides an efficient way to respond to freedom of information requests. Although it may take longer to publish data the first time a request is made, it is only done once and repeat requests do not need to be answered in detail. There is EU wide legislation (Inspire) now coming into place that means this will be a requirement of all local authorities by the end of 2021.

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Open data has also been used to stimulate local innovation, entrepreneurship and to increase accountability.

Data hubs offer a part solution to the issues faced by information units, however they too rely on funding. In some cases, funding is in place for a limited period of time, and it is unclear whether business models will be able to sustain themselves post funding.

Across all cities there are problems of data inconsistency and duplication of tasks. Sometimes data is collected by individuals within a department but it is not being made available to all other departments. In other cases there are legitimate and understandable issues to resolve around privacy. It is also true that these processes present an extra, lower priority task for an officer to carry out which further squeezes their time. Some of these issues are an unfortunate product of being a pioneering city, and they take time and testing to resolve.

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