Insight or Not? Why only collective analysis of data can produce game changing insight

March 30, 2014

When is a new insight not an insight? When it doesn’t change the way we think about a problem. Local government has been reaching into its vast vaults of data and socio-economic analysis looking for understanding that can change the it works and improve the services it offers. I firmly believe that we need to profoundly change local public services by changing behaviour and using demand as the catalyst.

The first step should be to create a multi-agency insight unit which works across a variety of public service areas but is accountable to local public services collectively. This unit would not only help inform decision-making but also help to shape future policy. It would fulfil the much needed forecasting function that local government lacks.

Some councils have talked about creating a team within councils whose job it is to look at gaining insight on citizens and the way they access services, but we have yet to see a council take a radically new approach to understanding the people it serves.

Instead what we have is a collection of trends, general tendencies in the way residents operate. This is interesting, but when councils are looking to re-design services and change behaviours it’s is not enough. What’s more, because of the limits of current intel we use the next closest thing we can muster to what feels like genuine insight: experience.

Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan once said, “A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding”. All too often experience manifests itself as professional or local prejudice that focuses on how to address the need presented by the citizen rather than seeing the citizen as being actively involved in things.

The result of this is that we are designing services and systems that and incentivise the wrong behaviours because we are looking at citizens as “units of consumption” rather than active players within a local system. It seems no one public sector organisation can hold enough information or data to truly uncover revelatory insights, in large part due to the restrictive nature of the interactions citizens have with them.

However, working collectively across a locality and potentially sharing information and understanding you can begin to see the outline of what a genuinely effective insight generating unit might look like. This isn’t simply about sharing data, it is about adopting a collective approach to its analysis.

As an example, there is a project I have been involved in looking at A&E attendances. In one hospital 19.8% of all day time A&E admissions are from students, despite the fact they make up only 6.2% of the areas population. This is helpful for the hospital to target one group with specific messages about A&E attendance and GP registration but it could also be powerful for the council’s public health team as a red flag for possible issues in a readily identifiable section of the community. The data is publicly available, but there is a need to build better relationships and change behaviours between professionals.

If we accept that people behave the way they do because we design bad systems then the logical extension is to argue that if we design better systems we’ll get better behaviour. Whether a multi agency insight unit is the answer or not doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we ask the question about whether we can garner more profound knowledge of our people and places. I think we can.

Martin Cresswell, Chief Executive, iMPOWER

An edited version of this article was published originally at The Guardian

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