The Art of the Digitally Possible: Why data is fundamental to the future of our public services

  • Photo: Mark Owens, Managing Director of Civica Northern Ireland

    Sync NI sat down with Mark Owens, Managing Director of Civica Northern Ireland, to explore the fundamental importance of data and what’s possible – not in the future - but in the here and now.

    As the pace of digital transformation accelerates we, and the world we live in, are generating ever increasing amounts of data and this data has the potential to enhance our lives, and society as a whole, in ways that were previously unimaginable. Civica is at the forefront of the next generation of digital technologies to transform not only our public services but for the people and communities who depend upon them. In this interview, we explore how high-quality data, which is collated, managed and used effectively can support smarter decision-making and ultimately better outcomes for citizens.

    Northern Ireland is a tech trailblazer and Mark is keen to point out that we should be incredibly proud of that. The software sector alone employs over 30,000 people, earning more than the national average. Around one in four jobs advertised in Northern Ireland [NW1] last year were digital tech roles, a higher number than anywhere else in the UK.

    Mark explains ‘We’ve got the technology and we’ve got the skills….but crucially….we’ve also got the data. A digital goldmine of data in fact. We’ve got the digital tools and where we don’t, we can create them – right here in Northern Ireland.’

    A perfect example of this being Civica’s lifesaving CovidCareNI and CovidCertNI apps, rolled out and implemented rapidly in response to the pandemic.  We asked Mark how these apps have shaped our thinking about the importance of data and what the implications are for the future.

    Mark was quick to share some interesting insights ‘From the electoral register to track and trace, we’ve identified 1.2M people in Northern Ireland. That’s 1.2M out of a population of 1.8M. Just reflect on that for a moment. But we need to ask ourselves – are we exploiting all that valuable data to its full potential? Do we yet have a complete digital picture of the citizen and the community in Northern Ireland?  The answer, I think it’s fair to say, is – not yet.’

    We asked Mark more about these ‘missing pieces in the digital picture’ and he was optimistic that creating this complete digital picture is a lot easier than we might think, and it was all down to what Civica has identified as the ‘three Ss’: Standards, Skills and Sharing.

    First, data standards. By defining and applying common rules for the collection and management of data public bodies can focus on understanding and interpreting data without constantly checking what it means or where it came from, saving time, effort and money.

    Next comes skills. Using data should not be the domain of only senior management and trained analysts. With the right tools, training and systems, people at all levels of public service delivery, including those in frontline roles, could make better use of data to guide smarter, more innovative decision-making, thereby ensuring the best outcomes for the people they serve. 

    And finally, sharing. For all of us, data sharing is now a fact of life. From online shopping to clicking ‘Accept all cookies’ every time we visit a new website, we know that we leave a digital footprint everywhere we go.

    Mark pointed out ‘Utility providers, health services and local authorities for instance, each hold data on those in vulnerable circumstances such as people struggling to pay bills. By sharing their data in a transparent and secure manner, public service providers can better understand the needs of each citizen they serve and offer solutions which are tailored to individual circumstances.’

    Sync NI asked Mark if he could give us a useful example, or a real-life scenario, where improved use of data could positively impact outcomes and improve people’s lives. Without hesitation Mark offered us two simple examples to illustrate the point, starting with a scenario where one smart decision can literally change a life.

    ‘Let me paint you a picture,’ Mark begins…’A police officer just outside the hotel here on Skipper Street spots a smartly dressed man behaving very oddly. Now, after a casual observation, the officer reckons that the individual concerned might have had one too many drinks. It’s a warm Friday evening after all. The man is walking erratically, shouting abuse at passers-by and appears very confused. But the police officer doesn’t arrest him. Instead, she calmly asks the man his name, to which he replies, Paul Smith. She then takes out her police smartphone and runs Paul’s name through the police database, which is connected to the HSC’s social care system. This takes only a few seconds. She immediately discovers that Paul has a neurological condition which is most likely causing his behaviour. She then cross-checks with the PSNI and courts service databases and discovers the man was mistakenly arrested and charged for being drunk and disorderly on two previous occasions, causing distress for both Paul and his already struggling family. Armed with this knowledge, the officer phones for an ambulance, providing the 999 dispatcher with details of Paul’s exact condition. By the time he arrives at the hospital, the A&E team has already accessed his medical history via his GP and alerted the psychiatric nurse and specialist to be on stand-by.’

    As Mark explains ‘This data already exists and simply sharing it between relevant service providers can dramatically impact an outcome, allowing smart decisions to change lives and provide better outcomes. Now let’s look at a different scenario from another angle where making every second count can massively impact the outcome in a medical emergency.’

    This example is more personal and possibly a bit closer to home for many people.

    ‘Imagine you’re at home on a Saturday and a family member has just suffered a serious accident out in the garden. You phone for an ambulance, knowing instinctively it is a matter of life or death and that every second counts. Once you’ve put down the phone, you suddenly panic, remembering that there’s major roadworks on the most direct route between the hospital and your home. But you don’t need to worry about that. The ambulance driver is following real-time data from TrafficWatchNI[NW2]  to avoid the roadworks and traffic hot spots so they arrive as quickly as possible. In the back of the ambulance, paramedics are pulling up cross-referenced, up-to-date medical information on the casualty, ensuring that when they arrive at your home, they can make rapid, well-informed decisions and ensure they make every crucial second count.’

    Mark concludes ‘The two scenarios I’ve just given illustrate how digital technologies can be developed, and creating a data-driven big picture can help to change a potentially tragic situation and turn it around to result in a much more favourable outcome, even to the extent that it becomes lifesaving.’

    These two scenarios perfectly highlight the benefits of sharing data across organisations. Civica is clearly at the cutting edge of helping public sector bodies become more efficient and cost effective through the proper collection, accessibility and analysis of data providing a better experience for patients to improve wider population health.

    About the author

    Aoife is a Sync NI writer with a previous background working in print, online and broadcast media. She has a keen interest in all things tech related. To connect with Aoife feel free to send her an email or connect on LinkedIn.

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