Father Christmas Mastered Big Data, So Why Can’t The Public Sector?

Santa Mastered Big Data

As 2013 draws to a close there have been numerous reminders of just how chronically ill-equipped the UK public sector is for capturing, crunching and deploying big data to improve services. These shortcomings are not simply a minor inconvenience, in many instances sloppy data management has delivered poor public services costing time and money and in some cases threatening lives.

From the National Health Service (NHS) to schools, welfare and even Policing, this year we have all seen some pretty appalling incidents that could and should have been prevented by the efficient exchange of critical information.

Contrast the UK public sector’s approach to big data management to that of a world-famous early adopter, Father Christmas. This guy would seriously be topping all the Gartner Magic Quadrants and making tidal waves out of Forrester Waves when it comes to getting big data right.

I mean, not only does he know the address, age and Christmas wish list of every child in the world, but he also uses analytics to map the mileage and travel time between each house to ensure he does the job in a single night.

His elves gather so much data about each kid’s behaviour throughout the year that his dashboard even tells him if the child has been naughty or nice. A few people try to tell me that it’s all done by magic, but I don’t believe them, there is no way he could drill-down and make so many accurate decisions without a BI system in place.

But taking this example, and the many other brilliant examples delivered by private sector companies in the UK and you begin to see just how poorly equipped our government is to deliver on data management in the public sector.

Take for example the chronic under-resourcing in NHS Mid Staffs scandal – presumably somebody knew that the wards were understaffed but nobody did anything about it. But in the era of big data, the public have a right to know as well, so why don’t we have visibility into how many nurses are currently working there per patient? It would only take a simple customer-facing dashboard to tell us. They do it for crime mapping, so why not for our health services?

Another heart-breaking example of a lack of communication between organisations was seen in the preventable death of schoolboy Daniel Pelka who was described as ‘invisible’ to professionals. The Police knew he came from a violent home, social services had noticed he was losing weight, and teachers saw him rummaging through bins looking for food – did nobody think of sharing this information? By the time they did it was too late.

This is just another ludicrous example of so many people in key positions being in possession of pieces of the puzzle, but failing to share them and put them together. Somebody somewhere, should have been in a position to collate all this information and take action. They failed, and the consequences were devastating.

Take any area of the public sector and you will find a way to improve it with a big data solution. Usually, these technologies are deployed in businesses to track financials and used to drive up sales performance. This Christmas, is it too much to ask for Civil Servants to take a long hard think about how Big Data can be used to improve lives and protect the most vulnerable in our society? If Santa can do it, then so can they.

Steven George Hilley

Steven George-Hilley is Director of Technology & Enterprise at Parliament Street, one of the UK’s most influential think tanks. Parliament Street is fundamentally a research-based organisation, producing papers and a political magazine that influence thinkers in government, the media and the academic world. The group holds regular debates in Westminster and at major conferences across the UK.