Big data could transform public services despite pitfalls, Demos says

4 Apr 17

Big data has the potential to transform public and private sector operations but it does have limitations, the Demos think-tank has said.

Today Demos released a study into the impact of big data and various visualisation tools or “dashboards” used by organisations to make huge quantities of data intelligible to the non-technically trained.

The report states these dashboards “provide a remarkable opportunity to build more efficient and data-driven services and operations” but researchers warned there are pitfalls with these systems that users need to be aware of.

According to the think-tank both the off-the-shelf and bespoke programmes can help local and national government operate more efficiently but they have weaknesses.

Off-the-shelf models are usually geared towards short-term operational issues, rather than longer-term issues; and frequently staff do not have the skills needed to operate them effectively.

Demos found that bespoke versions can be tailored to whatever the organisational requirements happen to be, but these systems are more expensive and lack the external support offered with dashboards from commercial providers.

Pre-existing dashboards, which are easier to learn to use, are considered to be better suited for organisations with high staff turnover.

Some of the recommendations for public and private bodies from the report include, identifying the purpose and use of the programmes and communicating that clearly to designers and users.

With the public increasingly concerned about the privacy of their personal data, having a clear purpose for any data dashboard should guard against “mission creep” and make sure these large, secure data sets are only used for their original, intended use.

The study also warned “dashboards have the potential to mislead as well as inform”, and it added “users can be blinded by large numbers or have insufficient understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the data they are using”.

It urged groups planning to implement these systems to provide comprehensive training on how to use them and how to spot the programme’s limitations that could skew how users analyse the data at hand.

The report noted that the Government Digital Services team, aimed at improving the digital services of government departments, had rolled out 800 dashboards since it was established in 2011.

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