How self-service analytics is helping local authorities

The concept of big data has gone from strength to strength in recent years.

The concept of big data has gone from strength to strength in recent years. With more businesses, devices and services making use of internet connectivity and wireless functionality, there is an abundance of data being generated at every possible moment.

Although making sense of this information can be challenging, doing so provides businesses with actionable insights that make an organisation more effective and make resources go further. This is particularly important for local authorities in light of constant pressure to do more with less, as Mid Kent Services (MKS) has been demonstrating for the past six months.

Local authorities have been subject to a number of budget cuts in recent years. As the UK government has worked to ease the country back to stability after the 2009 recession, councils have typically felt the squeeze of funding cuts. As a result, there is a constant pressure on them to make their resources stretch further and to achieve more while avoiding additional costs.

Big data makes this possible. By analysing the information accumulated by a variety of input sources, such as council tax payment methods and parking permit services, local authorities are able to identify areas where costs can be minimised, as well as where extra funding is necessary or whether there is any potential fraudulent activity. However, this is only achievable with an effective approach to analysing and reporting this data, something that has traditionally proven difficult for councils with larger constituencies.

An intelligent approach to big data

Mid Kent Services (MKS) is one of a handful of local authority partnerships working to tackle this problem. The partnership, which consists of Maidstone, Swale and Tunbridge Wells Borough Councils, shares a combined ICT department that works to serve all three boroughs. This accounts for roughly 410,000 individuals, which subsequently produces a high volume of data and makes analysis a laborious and time-consuming process.

This problem is exacerbated when you consider that individuals with specialist analytical skills are often needed to interpret and present the raw data into something more useful.

It is becoming more widely acknowledged that companies and organisations require business intelligence software to make big data work for them. This was recently highlighted in Gartner’s 2016 CIO Agenda Report, which featured business intelligence and analytics as the top trending priority from a poll of nearly 3,000 Chief Information Officers (CIOs) globally. In fact, this is the fifth consecutive year that business intelligence has been top priority.

As a result, it is of little surprise that MKS turned to business intelligence software to help bring together its many data sets into one central location. The partnership put in a successful bid for funding from the Transformation Challenge Award (TCA), a scheme introduced by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), in 2014.

A portion of this funding was dedicated to investment in software, the aim of which was to simplify the cross-referencing of data sets to aid each individual council in meeting government-imposed spending targets. In order to achieve this, the business intelligence software had to be capable of drawing information from the large quantity of sources and cross-reference it all effectively, while also allowing for partnership-wide data reports. MKS turned to business analytics specialist, Connexica, for software that could deliver this, prompted by work the company had recently done in providing counter-fraud analytics through its CXAIR solution to Kent County Council.

“The brief we gave to Connexica was for software that could work across a number of projects within the partnership to analyse a variety of data types,” explained Andy Sturtivant, TCA Project Manager at MKS. “The software was required to not only analyse and cross-reference all of this data, but to also draw it from several data streams to boost efficiency.“

Our previous approaches to managing and analysing data were very one-dimensional and unable to provide useful cross-referencing functionality. With much of the data that we are making use of, it can only truly benefit us when we are able to see a more comprehensive overview of information across the partnership." The ability to cross-reference data sets was especially important in reducing administrative costs for the borough councils. In one of the MKS projects, Swale Borough Council wanted to use business intelligence software to reduce the cost of processing payments for council services.

Although Swale Borough Council was already processing some of its electronic payments automatically, without the need for staff to complete transactions, a large amount of service users in the mid-Kent region were still using traditional methods such as cheques or phone payments. This resulted in elevated operational costs for the local authorities. One of the objectives for Swale Borough Council in particular was to identify those customers who already make some form of direct debit or electronic payment for some services, but continue to use traditional payment methods for other services where automation isn't available.

Uniting the data

“CXAIR is designed to easily integrate a multitude of data streams, whether it’s within an SME or even encompassing an entire county,” explained Greg Richards, Sales and Marketing Director at Connexica. “However, being able to gather data from multiple sources raises the challenge of dealing with low quality data. Traditional analytics software struggles when presented with data that contains inconsistencies — usually errors that were introduced when the data was entered into the system. Even a missing space in a postcode, for example, can throw off many analytics solutions.“

Fortunately, CXAIR addresses this issue by running data validation processes as it receives information. This allows us to identify these potential problems from the very beginning and resolve them before errors occur, helping to ensure all future data is high quality. ”However, even having high quality data is not enough. Hiring the right people, with the right technical expertise to analyse, interpret and present the data in a way that makes it easy to digest for non-technical staff is equally as important. This costly and laborious process has traditionally been one of the biggest barriers to making use of big data and gaining deeper insights from it.

"Undoubtedly one of the biggest grievances companies face when deciding on analytics software is just how effective it really is at providing genuine insight,” continued Richards. “Business Intelligence has become increasingly high on CIO priority lists in recent years, so there are a lot of start-ups creating analytical software. However, it often requires specially-trained analysts to draw any valuable insight from what is collected.

“There’s currently a movement to the democratisation of business intelligence, which is the process of enabling any member of staff, regardless of their technical know-how, to navigate the information and understand it. This has many benefits for a variety of businesses, but is of particular importance to councils looking to minimise costs. After all, using analytics to reduce administrative fees is counterproductive if the authority has to pay a specialist to do so!”

Data security

“One of our biggest priorities when choosing the right business intelligence software was that of data protection and security,” explained Sturtivant from MKS. “Much of the information that councils work with is of a sensitive nature and so it must be handled in accordance with a number of regulatory guidelines."

One such regulation is the Data Protection Act (DPA) 1998. The DPA 1998 outlines that all personal data held by businesses or organisations must abide by eight data protection principles, the seventh of which relates to the security of held information. This covers protection from both third-party compromisation and accidental data loss.

However, this causes concerns for many local authorities. There is currently a heated technological debate about the security of cloud computing, which is the platform that many web-based services use for handling programs and data. In fact, the 2016 state of the cloud survey revealed that many IT staff believe that security is the one of the biggest challenges to cloud implementation – second only to functional competency.

Challenges of business intelligence

Implementing business intelligence software into a system can come with a unique set of challenges in each application. Whenever an organisation rolls out a new piece of software or a new computer system, it often places a steep learning curve on staff to get up to speed quickly. In order to overcome this, Connexica provided a series of training sessions to MKS, including admin setup and dashboard navigation, to ensure staff were fluent in the software.

“The support we received from the team at Connexica was excellent. They guided us through the installation process and helped with minor teething problems,” continued Sturtivant. “After setting up CXAIR promptly, the team remained on hand to help, ensuring that it was the ideal solution for the partnership.”

Making big data work

The use of business intelligence software has streamlined the tasks of MKS. Within Maidstone Borough Council, for example, one such task was monitoring and analysing the housing options in the borough. This had previously been a time-consuming process involving three separate systems, but is now all done within search-based analytic software.

The benefits of this were that staff could see at a glance whether household spending was in line with audited household income, which in turn informed decision-making. Likewise, the centralised location of data made for better management of funding for temporary accommodation — something particularly important in light of the area’s rising reports of homelessness.

These efficiency and business-planning benefits are possible with the combined use of big data and easily-accessible business intelligence software. As the quantity of generated and accumulated data continues to increase, it will only become more important for higher numbers of staff to be able to make use of it.

While not every company or organisation will face the same budgetary limitations as local authorities, many are under the same pressure of streamlining processes and increasing return on investment. Effective business intelligence software is the key to achieving this and making resources go further and gain a competitive advantage in the process.

Greg Richards, Sales and Marketing Director at Connexica

Image Credit: Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock