Research by academics at the University of Glasgow has shown how data sharing has been critical to how Scottish local government managed the rapid response to the COVID-19 crisis in the last 12 months.
Local government in Scotland was at the forefront of the response to COVID-19, delivering essential services to communities, providing support to local businesses, as well as, contributing to test, trace and local outbreak monitoring.
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.
A new report - Scottish Local Government during COVID-19: Data Needs, Capabilities, and Uses - published today shows how Scottish local authorities embraced the challenge of COVID-19 to embark on new collaborative and innovative developments using data to help their citizens fight the pandemic.
The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and implemented in collaboration with the Digital Office for Scottish Local Government.
Dr Justine Gangneux , a Research Associate at the Urban Big Data Centre, University of Glasgow, said: "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.
"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 crisis has also had a positive effect: it turned out to be a catalyst for innovation, for example by prompting local authorities to form new partnerships and networks for data sharing in a short period of time."
Professor Simon Joss, Professor of Urban Futures at the University of Glasgow, said "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.
"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."
The Urban Big Data Centre researchers 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.
The survey found that 83% of respondents stated that there was an increase in internal data sharing during COVID-19, 79% indicated the use of new data sources, and 74% 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: 89% of respondents found internal public sector data in the early stage of the pandemic to be ’very important’ and a further 17% ’quite important’.
That the focus was on public sector data is largely explained by the nature of the crisis, which created an urgent need for on-the-ground information about local communities (for example, health, social welfare and education) and businesses (for example, rate relief and grants).
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 positive outcome of the crisis is the evident commitment to working together across public sector organisations, for example by using common datasharing protocols and, more generally, engaging in knowledge exchange through various networks such as the COVID-19 Data Intelligence Network.
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.
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: investment and strengthening of data networks and collaborations; the adoption of common digital and data standards; consolidating data sharing protocols across the public sector and developing protocols with the third sector as well as working towards a joined-up approach to data centred upon public benefits.