Nesta innovates with data for good in public sector

David Reed, knowledge and strategy director, DataIQ

Innovation and government are two concepts that are not often thought to go together. For that very reason, they are one of the five thematic areas that Nesta, the global innovation foundation, has chosen to focus on, alongside health, education, the creative economy, arts and culture, and innovation policy.

At Data Summit, part of DataFest18, Nesta’s director of government innovation, Eddie Copeland, will be explaining why the term is not a dichotomy and what the eight teams he oversees are tasked with achieving. From better use of evidence in policy-making to encouraging volunteers to support public services, it is his role to encourage fresh thinking around common goals.

Eddie Copeland, NestaOne of these is the balance between increasing demand and falling resources in the public sector. “How do we respond to the huge pressure? And what do we do about delivering digital technology transformation in the public sector? If we don’t do the one, we won’t do the other,” Copeland told DataIQ in an interview. 

“Getting the right people together and setting them off in the same direction.”

It is the combination of people, data and technology that will drive innovation and improvement in government, just as they do in the private sector. For Nesta, that means “getting the right people together and setting them off in the same direction.” Not just a research and analysis thinktank, although these continue to be at its core, the foundation  looks to bring together stakeholders from across the spectrum who can make valuable advances by collaborating. 

“The majority of public sector organisations understand that data has huge potential to do good, whether through making better decisions or reforming public services,” said Copeland. He will be citing some examples where this has been achieved through joining up data, as well as considering where data science, artificial intelligence and machine learning will have a part to play. 

“The big question for the public sector is how to use these powerful tools in the right way."

These might not seem the obvious tools to deploy against the support given to vulnerable families or ensuring consistent treatment of offenders in the criminal justice system, but they are all capable of being explored and improved with the right data and technology. “The big question for the public sector is about ethics and how to use these powerful tools in the right way. We are closely involved in that debate,” he said.

Emerging technologies like AI or blockchain throw up ethical issues just as much as they offer innovative solutions. According to Copeland, “Nesta tries to see through the hype around these technologies and identify which bits are helpful, then research and test them.”

One dimension which he will be exposing at Data Summit and which is not always visible to the commercial world is the third sector, especially volunteer groups and organisations. Digital social innovation is a key concept which, Copeland said, “aims to make government aware that as well as big business, there are smaller groups and third-sector organisations that can bring powerful knowledge to bear.”

“There is a risk that parts of the tech community can be too focused on driving out that tech, but they don’t have a deep understanding of the issues. Third-sector organisations and charities already have that deep knowledge and the volunteers on the ground - they have done the hard work. If they could apply technology to do their work better, that is to everybody’s benefit,” said Copeland.

For government departments and Ministers facing the pressure of immediate problems and demands, it can be hard to take a longer-term view that involves backing innovation as part of the solution. But Copeland points to the creation of the Office for Data Analytics in West Midlands Combined Authority, combined with its digital capability framework and new technology hub, as an example of how the public sector is trying to harness the same data and technology that commercial firms take for granted. With Nesta’s help, it is an approach that could not only spread, but become the new norm for the public sector and its decision-makers.


Eddie Copeland will be speaking on the afternoon of Thursday, 22nd March at Data Summit, part of DataFest18. For information and tickets, visit here. DataIQ is the media partner for the event.

Knowledge and strategy director, DataIQ
David is developing the framework for soft skills and career development among data and analytics practitioners. He continues to be editor-in-chief and research director for DataIQ.