Putting customer data in its place in the public sector

SUMMARY:

Three senior data executives explain why location-based operational intelligence is the key to smarter public services

Public sector organisations are mixing disparate data sources with specialist mapping tools to create new operational intelligence that is helping to boost customer service.

That was the conclusion of a roundtable event held by geographical information systems provider Esri UK in London today, where three data executives highlighted how location-based operational intelligence is impacting front-end services in the public sector.

Quocirca analyst Clive Longbottom, who chaired the event, suggested operational intelligence is best-viewed as an enhanced version of business intelligence. Rather than focusing on historical data, operational intelligence helps organisations to develop a better understanding of how their operations are working in real-time.

Nick Jones, senior advisor at the Environment Agency (EA), explained how he has helped his organisation to think carefully about how it can make the most of operational intelligence. EA runs Esri mapping technology on top of its existing systems, allowing workers to geo-tag information and provide an enhanced view of flooding incidents.

The organisation collates information from three major sources, pre-incident, real-time operational intelligence and post-incident recording. Jones said EA uses operational intelligence to build a picture of how flooding has occurred in the past, how it is affecting people right now and how it might impact people in the future.:

I went to areas with a major risk of flooding, like Cumbria, and realised there was a huge opportunity to use information to improve our services. I saw we could take images of what was happening on the ground and push those to our customers. I saw the chance to innovate and we used Esri’s technology to create a solution to the challenge we faced in just a few weeks.

Jones helped EA roll out a pilot late last year and the technology has now been used at a national scale. The approach was used during January’s East Coast Surge and allowed EA employees to geo-tag images at 290 locations from Newcastle to Penzance.

EA used the operational intelligence to provide location-based updates to residents, showing how barriers had been deployed in readiness for the surge. Internal employees back at the control centre also used the images to monitor and assess rising water levels, said Jones:

We were prepared, we knew the situation and we were able to update people across the organisation, and our customers, in real time from that one version of the truth. The reason we provide all our alerts on maps is that people can see what’s happening – it creates an instant response.

Making tactical decisions

Like Jones at EA, Dave Clark – who is a constable at North Wales Police – has helped his organisation to embrace operational intelligence. He was posed the challenge of using technology to help prioritise the evacuation of vulnerable people during a flooding event. His answer was Exodous, an evacuation planning tool that blends mathematical models about most-at-risk groups with spatial analysis techniques:

All we could have done before we had this technology was to get as many of our people to a location and to alert as many people as possible. Exodus has changed and improved our approach. The tool allows us to coordinate our policing resources much more efficiently and rapidly. I can click on a map, decide where an epicentre will be and create a bespoke response in five minutes, prioritising houses and businesses for evacuation.

Jones, in short, is using live operational data to make strong tactical decisions that can help the police deploy resources effectively and save lives. He recognises the geography of North Wales can provide an issue in terms of connectivity. However, the mix of modelling and mapping that Jones uses has already helped North Wales Police to save money, time and resources.

In fact, Jones believes the scope for using operational intelligence is “potentially endless”. He said further technological developments, particularly as the force works closely with partners like EA and Esri, will help to improve performance:

The reality is that most floods are not the worst-case scenario. If we can use real-time data to improve our planning, then we can focus our limited resources much more sensibly. Things will only get better as we work with other organisations and continue to make more, and better, use of information. It’s not a competitive business. We all want to make things better.

Partnering for success

The preparedness to use a partnership approach to improve citizen experiences extends to commercial operations, too. Andy Nicholson, asset data manager at Wessex Water, said there are now use cases for organisations to share information via web services that might not have been possible just three years ago:

Why would we, or executives at any other businesses, build bespoke applications when we can work on the back of the good work done by other organisations and providers? If we can exchange information effectively between organisations then the information we use will be richer and better.

Nicholson said he is using data to put location at the heart of everything the business does, whether that is managing water or dealing with customers. Wessex Water deals with 160,000 calls a year across 500-plus geographical areas. Rather than drowning in data, Nicholson said organisations must aim for operational intelligence.

Wessex Water is using a combination of existing systems and Esri technology to present information to its customers. Nicholson said the firm created a web-based map platform that highlights the water quality in individual geographical area in just five days. The firm is now adding other data to the platform and is using information from live chat, Twitter and customer calls to feed the system:

The more information you can provide, and the more engagement you can deliver, the more positive a customer is going to feel about your organisation. We can tell people on a live chat, for example, what’s happening in their local vicinity and when we will be working in their area next. Operational intelligence means you can take the information you hold and create a richer experience for your customers.

My take

Big data remains an over-hyped concept and operational intelligence could be yet another buzz phrase. However, there are reasons to be positive, as smart public sector organisations are demonstrating how the right information, used in the right way at the right time, can help to improve business performance and citizen services.

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