The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Pamela Cook, managing director of Infoshare, a data management firm based in London. Cook discussed her company’s work with the police and social services to identify children at risk through improved data-sharing.
Nick Wallace: Infoshare started about eighteen years ago—that’s a very long time in the technology world. How did you get involved in this line of work? How has the public sector changed its approach to data?
Pamela Cook: Infoshare has historically been a research and development led organization, continually improving upon our evidence-driven data matching. The ambition was always related to the technology. I took over the company after the lack of safeguarding I witnessed when I adopted children. I was horrified how they had fallen through the net, and they will be living with the direct consequences of that for the remainder of their lives. Upon talking leadership of Infoshare, I changed our strategy to become more commercial. We restructured and since then we have secured our largest clients through head-to-head successes against the largest global competitors, and signed-up with government agencies that focus on safeguarding vulnerable people. This coincided with a new respect for the value of organizational data, and an increasing demand for the best technology to optimize the intelligence held within the data. Infoshare has become known for the crucial audit trail linking all relevant people and places to each other where other solutions had failed to link.
The public sector still has a long way to go in order to embrace the best use of data. If the public knew the extent of what the organizations responsible for safeguarding the vulnerable do not know about those people, they would be shocked. There is an expectation that public sector bodies have a handle on the citizen and location data, but all too often, this is not the case. However, there is a recognition that if the investment is made in data, there will be significant benefits, such as protecting citizens, reducing fraud and crime, improving the performance of existing applications, and underpinning key strategic decisions.
Wallace: What obstacles do you face in helping the public sector take full advantage of data?
Cook: We have a growing number of government clients who are leading the way on effective safeguarding of their citizens. They fully embrace sharing data within agreed boundaries, and they recognize that without effective sharing, they will not have the knowledge to best protect their citizens. Sadly, though, there are still too many public sector bodies that continue to hide behind legislation or difficulties pooling or aligning budgets as reasons not to share data.
It is my opinion that they put their own concerns, which are often unfounded, before the needs of the citizens they serve. I find this unacceptable and too often, vested interests play too large a part in this crucial area of responsibilities and leadership.
With cloud computing, and a light footprint in on-premise servers, we never experience technical barriers. Whilst cultural challenges are still significant, it is my opinion that they are slowly becoming less frequent barriers. More and more case studies are published and an increasing number of high profile public figures are encouraging the sharing and use of data.
Regulatory barriers are the single biggest obstacle. To be clear, it is not the regulation itself that is preventing data sharing, but individuals who choose to hide behind their interpretation of the regulation to block projects, irrespective of the clear benefits.
Wallace: You do quite a bit of work with UK police and social services. What’s the role of data in the task of safeguarding vulnerable people?
Cook: The role of data is essential simply because identifying the most vulnerable citizens in society is only possible by matching and analyzing data from multiple agencies.
In order to place the needs of each citizen first, it is vital to have a complete view of each and every citizen across multiple agencies, which can only be achieved by sharing data systematically. This results in improved operational intelligence for police officers and social workers, which they can use to better identify and help the vulnerable people they are trying to safeguard.
An important note here is that policing and social work are very different jobs, so these agencies have different notions of what makes somebody vulnerable and when it’s time to intervene. If they share data well, both will be better able to identify the problems they’re looking for. This means the difference between citizens being looked after appropriately and lives being saved versus unknown vulnerable children and adults being left to cope alone and unsuccessfully with tragic outcomes. We have client examples where not only have some of the most vulnerable in society been identified for the first time, but the associated savings as a result of pooling the data and therefore the intelligence has run into many millions of pounds.
Wallace: How do you see the role of data in policing and social work developing over the next several years? What do you hope to see happen?
Cook: I see the use of data in policing and social work expanding significantly over the next several years, across every operational facet. I hope to see improvements in how these organizations manage data so that they use data more ubiquitously and effectively whilst simultaneously maintaining or improving protections around privacy and civil rights. For example, there could be a real-time single view of a citizen that accurately records each and every contact with public service providers but that is only accessible to those providers to the degree that is appropriate for use in question. I also hope to see, as a consequence, significantly reducing incidents of harm to vulnerable populations and growing confidence in the effective use of data by public service providers. I hope that the cases of children falling through the net are reduced as much as possible and that effective early intervention is proven to have a positive social impact on lives and communities.
Wallace: To what extent do current data sharing rules help or hinder the work you do with social services and the police? For example, what do you think of the UK’s Digital Economy Bill?
Cook: In some respects, it can be argued that the sheer volume of guidelines, legislation, and other rules that have a bearing on data sharing can lead to work being hindered. For example, a social worker assessing a case likely often faces decisions around whether to share data or whether to request that data be shared with them. This decision requires the social worker to assess the balance of rules that often appear to conflict with each other in order to determine the appropriateness of sharing. In such circumstances, the social worker errs on the side of caution and doesn’t share, with the risk that important information regarding the case may be lost. This could lead to a citizen not receiving optimal care and priority. The situation is made worse by the fact that the shared information is often required in order to make a sensible determination over whether it was appropriate to share in the first place. There is often too great a burden on inspection, evaluation, and compliance regimes with systems designed to meet certain rules and requirements, rather than serve the people.
From a policing perspective, the principle that information is only collected and recorded for a specific pre-determined purpose could be seen to conflict with how police treat data as a resource, as data may have additional legitimate purposes beyond the one for which it was initially collected. For example, recently a social worker—a woman—was going to carry out an assessment of a man in his home. What the social worker did not know, but the police did, was that the man had been recently released from prison for sexual offences, and he had previously held a firearms license.
The Digital Economy Bill has the potential to reduce this challenge. For example, it makes clear that consent is not required for the disclosure of personal information for the purposes of safeguarding vulnerable children or adults. On the surface, this would appear to remove any potential for misinterpretation. However, where longstanding cultural baggage within organizations has led to a bias against sharing data with other organizations, the bill cannot easily stop consent being used as an excuse not to share data at an operational level.
My advice to policymakers working on data regulation would be simple: be conscious of existing relevant regulation; avoid perpetually creating incremental new regulation that only considers the narrow scope of the issue directly in question; and remove or update previous regulation in line with the new developments.