I’ve had a very diverse career starting as an intern in a Chinese oil and gas corporation, to then a procurement officer working across police forces in England and Wales, to then setting up a social enterprise as well as a start-up web company. I was a management consultant for over seven years, predominately working to improve public services in the UK, but also the UAE working out of the world’s largest uninterrupted sand mass – “The Empty Quarter.” I am now the head of insight and innovation at Barking and Dagenham Council, an East London Local Government. Despite its diversity, my career has one consistent theme - using data to generate positive outcomes for government, business and society. My current role involves leading a very unique team of data scientists and our mission is very simple - turn data into insight-led action.
For the past three years, I have been inspired by the work of the Social Progress Imperative who provide decision makers and citizens with data on the social and environmental health of societies across 146 countries in the world. Most of this work exists at a country level and one of my career highlights was building the world’s first ward-level Social Progress Index, applied at the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham. This single project alone has transformed the way local politicians, government officers, charities and businesses work together to bring about positive social change at a local level.
I now often describe the projects I’m involved in not just as “projects”, but rather as personal “obsessions”. I think to implement any idea successfully, you must have a healthy obsession with it. If you focus on at least one obsession a year and do that one thing really well, not only will you make an impact in your organisation, but you’ll constantly grow as an individual.
2018 was a fantastic year for our team. We launched both our local Social Progress Index and a Borough Data Explorer. We won a grant to connect social care data with NHS data to examine the impact of social isolation on the care system. We built a data model to understand homelessness better and this had a part to play in reducing the homeless levels in our borough. We helped design one of the largest “city data” hackathons bringing together other organisations such as Transport for London and the Greater London Authority. Even though we’ve solidified the data science discipline into the heart of our organisation, we’re still aiming to out-do ourselves in 2019.
In our sector, we’ve yet to operationalise machine learning fully. In 2018, we’ve had some initial successes using the technique to identify illegal houses with multiple occupation, so as a council we can better protect vulnerable citizens. But I’m excited to see how this can become more mainstream across local government as a whole. In our sector, 2019 will bring more opportunities to explore the art of the possible with data. I’m hoping to see a greater convergence between the data people in government and business so we can collectively work on finding solutions to some of our society’s most complex problems.
Building an in-house team of dedicated data scientists in local government was not easy. Data scientists with local government experience were almost non-existent. We had to focus on hiring people with the right attitude and then up-skilling as best as we can. One of our team has now started their PhD on data science in local government and another team member is starting an apprenticeship in data analytics. We find the people with the right attitude and invest in them relentlessly. Culture is also important - we’re given the freedom to explore and experiment and that’s what keeps us motivated.
Data is the common asset that potentially joins up currently disparate public services, so the increasing number of “offices of data analytics” launched across the country excites me. I’m optimistic that this type of multi-agency working across public services to design more human-centred interactions will yield positive outcomes.