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Improving the Lives of Society’s Most Vulnerable People with Data

Roger Halliday, Chief Statistician for The Scottish Government, shares how public service organizations across Scotland are ‘joining the dots’ between their datasets to help the most vulnerable members of society

In the UK today, much of the data public sector organizations collect about British citizens lives in silos. But as pioneering countries such as Estonia have shown in recent years, governments can greatly improve the quality and efficiency of the services they provide by breaking down those silos and working toward a 360-degree view of their citizens.

In this week’s Business of Data podcast episode, Roger Halliday, Chief Statistician for The Scottish Government, talks about the work he’s doing to help Scotland provide better services to its citizens with data.

“I’m responsible for whatever numbers come out of public bodies across Scotland,” Halliday explains. “There are 40 or so organizations, from schools to prisons to the health service and so on.”

“I’m [here] to tell the story of a nation in an objective way and in an open and transparent way,” he continues. “I’m responsible for making sure that the numbers are trusted, that they’re high quality and that they’re actually used to improve the lives of people and improve decisions that are taken.”

Two Ways Scotland is Improving Society with Data

The COVID-19 pandemic is one obvious example of how curating and sharing valuable datasets can help governments provide better services and make more informed policy decisions. Indeed, Halliday says this has been a significant focus for him over the past 18 months.

“[For] the last year, for example, I was leading up the COVID-19 analysis team for the Scottish government,” he says. So, we were modelling the epidemic, getting evidence together for the difficult decisions that governments around the UK [and] the world have had to make.”

But Halliday also highlights an initiative geared toward providing essential services to homeless people to illustrate some of the more strategic ways Scotland’s government is harnessing the power of data.

“We’ve been collecting data on homelessness for many years,” he says. “When [we] put it together, we found that 8% of people in Scotland have been homeless at one time or another over the last 15 years.”

“We thought, if you put that data together with other bits of information, then maybe we’ll be able to better help people who are in that situation,” he continues. “So, they’re able to link that data on homelessness with data on the health services that people that are homeless receive and, not surprisingly, found that [these] people have difficulty accessing health services and that their health is a lot poorer.”

Through analyzing these connected datasets, Scotland’s public service organizations have developed new ways for people to access key services they might otherwise have struggled to access if they were homeless.

Perhaps more interestingly, they have also identified ‘trigger events’ that frequently cause people to become homeless. This is helping them develop ways to predict which citizens are at risk of losing their homes, so they can receive support to prevent them from becoming homeless in the first place.

What’s Next for Scottish Open Data Initiatives

Halliday draws a distinction between data being used for research, which is deidentified and can’t be traced back to an individual, and operational data that can be pieced together to make decisions about individual citizens.

In both cases, he says the public expect governments to be using data to join up siloed services and make better policy decisions already.

Now his team now has buy-in from data owners in key service organizations across Scotland for open data initiatives geared toward creating a better society, he’s looking to build on and scale successful pilot projects such as the homelessness example detailed above.

To this end, Scotland’s government has launched Research Data Scotland, an organization dedicated to improving economic, social and environmental wellbeing in Scotland by enabling access to and linkage of data about people, places and businesses for research in the public good.

“The space that we’re going to be able to move into is the ability to enable organizations to collaborate through the use of data,” Halliday concludes. “For many people in society, they’re using multiple services all the time. And just to be able to move from a transactional to a person-based way of working, I think [what we’re doing with data] is a key enabler.”

Key Takeaways

  • Break down data silos to improve decision-making. Integrating data from different public services organizations is helping Scotland’s government meet the needs of its citizens more effectively
  • Citizens expect government to be making data-driven decisions. Halliday believes the public see data-driven policymaking as ‘common sense’ and expect their representatives to do this already
  • Joined-up public services are the future. Halliday envisions a world where each Scottish citizen’s data is integrated so public sector organizations can provide them with personalized services