Assessing information quality: sorting the wheat from the CRAAP

The rapid expansion of the internet has enabled users to access unprecedented amounts of information.  However, not all of this information is valid, useful or accurate. In the world of ‘post-truth’ and ‘fake news’, the ability to critically assess information and its source is an essential skill.  Let’s consider what this means for public policy.

Growth of evidence-based policy

The need to assess research evidence is no longer limited to academics and scientists. The shift towards evidence-based decision-making means that policy makers and decision makers at every level now need to incorporate evidence into policy and practice.

The growth of the randomised controlled trials movement in public policy also reinforces the need for decision makers to be familiar with a range of research approaches.

In the UK, the What Works Network and the Alliance for Useful Evidence both work towards encouraging and improving the use of evidence to improve public services. Similarly, the Evidence Matters campaign seeks to promote the importance of evidence in policymaking, and tackle the misuse of research findings.

Publication doesn’t guarantee quality

While most of us are aware of the risks of encountering ‘fake news’ online, relying uncritically upon Google as an information source can leave one falling foul of ‘predatory’ open access journals, which masquerade as legitimate, peer-reviewed publications.

In recent years, there has been a boom in articles being published open access. There are now a vast number of good quality, open access publications in just about every subject imaginable.  Overall, this has been a positive development – who can argue with making more research free and easily accessible?

Open access not only has an ethical dimension – in many situations, it is also an obligation.  The UK government has already committed to ensuring that all publicly funded research is made available via open access.

However, the proliferation of open access material has led to a new problem – that of predatory open access journals. These journals operate using a business model that involves charging publication fees to authors, without providing the editorial and publishing services associated with legitimate journals. They may even include fake editors or members of the editorial board. Librarian and researcher, Jeffry Beall, has compiled a rather impressive list of ‘potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers’.

The quality of articles published in predatory journals is therefore questionable. Recent (rather entertaining) examples of how unreliable such journals can be include the neuroscientist who managed to trick a number of scientific journals into publishing a nonsensical piece of research complete with a number of Star Wars references, including the authors Dr Lucas McGeorge and Dr Annette Kin, and the article reporting the case of a man who develops ‘uromycitisis poisoning’, inspired by a 1991 episode of Seinfeld (the actual article is still online).

Is this information CRAAP?

So how do you assess the quality of a piece of information?

One way to do this is to ask yourself – is this information CRAAP? The CRAAP test was developed by Meriam Library at California State University to help students think critically about the sources of information they had identified.  Some of the key questions to consider when evaluating information sources are:

  • Currency
    • When was the information published?
    • Has it been revised or updated?
  • Relevance
    • Who is the intended audience?
    • Is the information at an appropriate level (i.e. not too advanced/basic?)
    • How well does the information relate to your topic?
  • Authority
    • Who is the author/publisher/source/sponsor?
    • Is the author qualified to write on this subject?
  • Accuracy
    • Is the information supported by evidence?
    • Has the information between reviewed or refereed?
    • Are there any spelling/grammatical errors?
  • Purpose
    • Is the information fact, opinion or propaganda?
    • Is it objective and impartial?
    • Are there any religious/political/cultural/personal biases?
    • Is it trying to sell a product?

How we can help

While the increasing availability of information via the internet and the growth of open access content has undoubtedly been a positive development, it goes hand in hand with the need for users to critically assess information sources.

Here in the Idox Information Service, we take pride in our database of high quality resources. Our Researchers select only the best quality resources from hundreds of verified sources to populate our database. Our research database has been recognised by the Alliance for Useful Evidence as a key tool within the UK.

Each week, we support policy and decision makers by providing the latest research and evidence on a range of public policy issues – both through our current awareness services, and through bespoke literature reviews. In doing so, we hope to contribute in our own small way to the wider drive to improve the use of evidence in public policy decision making.

As we have seen, the use of inaccurate or misleading information can have significant real-world consequences.  The need for authoritative, accurate and relevant research has never been greater.


Find out more about the Idox Information Service and our subscription services here.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments are interesting our research team.

Smart Chicago: how smart city initiatives are helping meet urban challenges

Outside a Chicago theatre, with a huge 'Chicago' sign outside

By Steven McGinty

Home to former President Barack Obama, sporting giants the Chicago Bulls, and the culinary delicacy deep dish pizza, Chicago is one of the most famous cities in the world. Less well known is Chicago’s ambition to become the most data-driven city in the world.

A late convert to the smart city agenda, Chicago was lagging behind local rivals New York and Boston, and international leaders Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Singapore.

But in 2011, Chicago’s new Mayor Rahm Emanuel outlined the important role technology needed to play, if the city was to address its main challenges.

Laying the groundwork – open data and tech plan

In 2012, Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued an executive order establishing the city’s open data policy. The order was designed to increase transparency and accountability in the city, and to empower citizens to participate in government, solve social problems, and promote economic growth. It required that every city agency would contribute data to it and established reporting requirements to ensure agencies were held accountable.

Chicago’s open data portal has nearly 600 datasets, which is more than double the number in 2011. The city works closely with civic hacker group Open Chicago, an organisation which runs hackathons (collaborations between developers and businesses using open data to find solutions to city problems).

In 2013, the City of Chicago Technology Plan was released. This brought together 28 of the city’s technology initiatives into one policy roadmap, setting them out within five broad strategic areas:

  • Establishing next-generation infrastructure
  • Creating smart communities
  • Ensuring efficient, effective, and open government
  • Working with innovators to develop solutions to city challenges
  • Encouraging Chicago’s technology sector

 Array of Things

The Array of Things is an ambitious programme to install 500 sensors throughout the city of Chicago. Described by the project team as a ‘fitness tracker for the city’, the sensors will collect real-time data on air quality, noise levels, temperature, light, pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and the water levels on streets and gutters. The data gathered will be made publicly available via the city’s website, and will provide a vital resource for the researchers, developers, policymakers, and citizens trying to address city challenges.

This new initiative is a major project for the city, but as Brenna Berman, Chicago’s chief information officer, explains:

If we’re successful, this data and the applications and tools that will grow out of it will be embedded in the lives of residents, and the way the city builds new services and policies

Potential applications for the city’s data could include providing citizens with information on the healthiest and unhealthiest walking times and routes through the city, as well as the areas likely to be impacted by urban flooding.

The project is led by the Urban Center for Computation and Data of the Computation Institute  a joint initiative of Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago. However, a range of partners are involved in the project, including several universities, the City of Chicago who provide an important governance role and technology firms, such as Product Development Technologies, the company who built the ‘enclosures’ which protect the sensors from environmental conditions.

A series of community meetings was held to introduce the Array of Things concept to the community and to consult on the city’s governance and privacy policy. This engagement ranged from holding public meetings in community libraries to providing online forms, where citizens could provide feedback anonymously.

In addition, the Urban Center for Computation and Data and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago ran a workshop entitled the “Lane of Things”, which introduced high school students to sensor technology. The workshop is part of the Array of Things education programme, which aims to use sensor technology to teach students about subjects such as programming and data science. For eight weeks, the students were given the opportunity to design and build their own sensing devices and implement them in the school environment, collecting information such as dust levels from nearby construction and the dynamics of hallway traffic.

The Array of Things project is funded by a $3.1 million National Science Foundation grant and is expected to be complete by 2018.

Mapping Subterranean Chicago

The City of Chicago is working with local technology firm, City Digital, to produce a 3D map of the underground infrastructure, such as water pipes, fibre optic lines, and gas pipes. The project will involve engineering and utility workers taking digital pictures as they open up the streets and sidewalks of Chicago. These images will then be scanned into City Digital’s underground infrastructure mapping (UIM) platform, and key data points will be extracted from the image, such as width and height of pipes, with the data being layered on a digital map of Chicago.

According to Brenna Berman:

By improving the accuracy of underground infrastructure information, the platform will prevent inefficient and delayed construction projects, accidents, and interruptions of services to citizens.

Although still at the pilot stage, the technology has been used on one construction site and an updated version is expected to be used on a larger site in Chicago’s River North neighbourhood. Once proven, the city plans to charge local construction and utility firms to access the data, generating income whilst reducing the costs of construction and improving worker safety.

ShotSpotter

In January, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Police Department commanders announced the expansion of ShotSpotter – a system which uses sensors to capture audio of gunfire and alert police officers to its exact location. The expansion will take place in the Englewood and Harrison neighbourhoods, two of the city’s highest crime areas, and should allow police officers to respond to incidents more rapidly.

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson highlights that although crime and violence presents a complex problem for the city, the technology has resulted in Englewood going “eight straight days without a shooting incident”, the longest period in three years.

ShotSpotter will also be integrated into the city’s predictive analytics tools, which are used to assess how likely individuals are to become victims of gun crime, based on factors such as the number of times they have been arrested with individuals who have become gun crime victims.

Final thoughts

Since 2011, Chicago has been attempting to transform itself into a leading smart city. Although it’s difficult to compare Chicago with early adopters such as Barcelona, the city has clearly introduced a number of innovative projects and is making progress on their smart cities journey.

In particular, the ambitious Array of Things project will have many cities watching to see if understanding the dynamics of city life can help to solve urban challenges.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other smart cities articles:

Introducing the Idox Information Service … supporting evidence use for over 40 years

Exterior of the Idox Information Service office in Glasgow

Exterior of the Idox Information Service office in Glasgow

As a team who work every day to supply evidence and good practice to our clients in the public sector and consultancies, it would be easy to feel a bit down about the ease with which the idea of a post-truth world has taken grip.

In fact however, it’s heartening that so many organisations continue to recognise the value that our service brings. Not only does it offer a continuing professional development resource for staff, it also acts as a channel for knowledge sharing between organisations – helping them when they have to review services, look for efficiencies, or transform what they do in light of changing government policy or priorities.

We know that much of what we do can remain hidden, even to our own members. So let’s go under the bonnet of our unique service …

Who we are

The Idox Information Service is a membership library service, which was established over forty years ago – originally under the name of the Planning Exchange. At the outset, the emphasis was on the provision of resources to support professionals working in planning and the built environment in Scotland, but over the years we’ve expanded our subject coverage to cover the whole spectrum of public sector information, and across the UK.

Our members include policy makers and practitioners from organisations including local authorities, central government, universities, think tanks, consultancies and charities. They work in challenging environments and often need evidence to inform service delivery or decision-making.

Our work

Our team is made up of a mix of researchers, public policy specialists and qualified librarians, along with support staff. They have professional memberships, including chartered membership of CILIP and the Social Research Association. This picture shows the typical range of activities in a year:

2014 statsPublic policy is an ever-evolving subject and so current awareness services are a big part of what we do. Members can set up their own subject alerts on anything that interests them, and we also have a set of weekly and fortnightly updates on common topics. Last year we added three new current awareness updates on Devolution, Smart Cities and of course, Brexit!

UK grey literature is a particular strength of our collection. We spend a lot of time sourcing documents such as technical reports from government agencies, and research reports produced by think tanks, university departments, charities and consultancies which are often overlooked by other databases. Recent research has highlighted the value of grey literature for public policy and practice.

We also write our own research briefings for members on different topics, with more detailed analysis of research and policy developments, and including case studies and good practice. Some of these briefings are publicly available on our publications page.

The interest from members in using our Ask a Researcher service has been increasing, due to the time pressures and other challenges that people face in sourcing and reviewing information. An example looking at the links between employee wellbeing and productivity is on our website. Members regularly comment on the usefulness of the results, and it’s satisfying to be able to make a direct contribution to their work in this way.

Keeping it personal

While our online database allows our members to search for and access resources themselves, there is a strong personal element to our work.

Our members know that we’re always available at the end of the phone or via email to provide them with dedicated support when they need it. It’s important to us that we provide a quality service which keeps pace with the changing needs and expectations of a varied membership base.

Hopefully, this article has provided some insight into the way that the Knowledge Exchange supports staff and organisations across a variety of fields. More information about the service can be found here.


In 2015, the Idox Information Service was recognised as a key organisation supporting evidence use in government and the public sector. It was named by NESTA / Alliance for Useful Evidence / Social Innovation Partnership in their mapping of the UK evidence ecosystem.

We also contribute data to the Social Policy and Practice database, which focuses on health and social care evidence, and is a resource recommended by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Equal to the task? Addressing racial inequality in public services

huddleCLR

Throughout October, a series of events to promote diversity and equality will take place as part of Black History Month. Although there are many achievements to celebrate, it is an unfortunate fact that many people in the UK today still experience disadvantage due to the colour of their skin.

Over the summer, reports by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), found that racial inequality in the UK was ‘worryingly high’.

In its biggest ever review of race inequality in the UK, the EHRC concluded that:

“while for certain people life has become fairer over the past five years, for others progress has stalled and for some– in particular young Black people – life on many fronts has got worse.”

Audit of racial disparities announced

The government responded quickly by announcing an audit of racial disparities in public services. It promises to ‘shine a light on injustices as never before’.

From summer 2017, Whitehall departments will be required to identify and publish information annually on outcomes for people of different backgrounds in areas such as health, education, childcare, welfare, employment, skills and criminal justice.

As well as enabling the public to check how their race affects the way they are treated by public services, the data is also intended to help force services to improve.

The audit is being called ‘unprecedented’ – and it certainly is – up until now, public services in the UK have not systematically gathered data for the purposes of racial comparison. Indeed, according to the FT, very few countries, if any at all, currently produce racial impact audits.

‘Worryingly high’ levels of racial inequality

The audit will have its work cut out.  The review by the EHRC found that, compared to their White counterparts, people from ethnic minorities were more likely to be:

  • unemployed
  • on low wages and/or in insecure employment
  • excluded from school
  • less qualified
  • living in poverty
  • living in substandard and/or overcrowded accommodation
  • experiencing mental and physical health problems
  • in the criminal justice system
  • stopped and searched by police
  • a victim of hate crime
  • a victim of homicide

Institutional racism

Similarly, the CERD findings into how well the UK is meeting its obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) raised serious concerns about the level of institutional racism in UK public services. Omar Khan, of the Runnymede Trust, suggested that the findings would ‘embarrass the UK on the world stage’.

Longstanding inequalities in access to services, the quality of care received and patients’ health outcomes were criticised, as was the over-representation of persons belonging to ethnic minorities in psychiatric institutions.

The committee echoed the EHRC’s concerns regarding higher unemployment rates and the concentration of persons belonging to ethnic minorities in insecure and low-paid work.  They also criticised the use of discriminatory recruitment practices by employers.

In education, there were concerns regarding reports of racist bullying and harassment in schools, and the lack of balanced teaching about the history of the British Empire and colonialism, particularly with regard to slavery.

The committee also concluded that there had been an outbreak of xenophobia and discrimination against ethnic minorities, particularly since the EU referendum campaign.  Indeed, the rise in post-Brexit racial tensions has been widely acknowledged.

Equal to the task?

Although the audit has been welcomed by many, including the EHRC, others have raised concern about the extent to which it will tackle the root of the problem.  Danny Dorling, of Oxford University, remains sceptical, stating that “within two or three years every single one of these audits is forgotten”.

Some have noted that in order to be effective, the audit will also have to capture outcomes for migrant families, and for poorer White people, who also suffer from discrimination and disadvantage.  Others, including Labour’s Angela Rayner, shadow equalities minister, have noted that there is a ‘huge gap’ in the review as it would not include the private sector.

The EHRC have called upon the government to createa comprehensive, coordinated and long-term strategy to achieve race equality, with stretching new targets to improve opportunities and deliver clear and measurable outcomes.”

Certainly, the data produced by the racial equality audit may well provide some basis for the establishment of such targets.

So while this October there is cause for celebrating the progress made so far, the findings of the EHRC and the CERD underline just how entrenched and far-reaching race inequality remains.  As the EHRC states:

“We must tackle this with the utmost urgency if we are to heal the divisions in our society and prevent an escalation of tensions between our communities.”


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

 

eGov Singapore: award winning leader in digital government

By Steven McGinty

“Singapore leads in all dimensions of digital readiness and scores high in economic competitiveness, citizen engagement as well as public sector productivity.”

These are the words of Ng Wee Wei, Managing Director (Health & Public Service) at Accenture, in Singapore. He made this statement on the day Singapore was ranked number one for digital government, in a comparative study carried out by Accenture.

However, this is just one of the many accolades won by Singapore. Other notable successes have included:

In my latest article on digital government around the world, we’ll take a look at how this island city state has become a global leader and what can be learned from their experience.

E-government policy development

In the 1970s the Singapore government realised that they were unable to compete with the larger labour-intensive economies. As a result, they identified ICT as a way of improving economic performance, particularly through increasing labour productivity, making processes leaner and more efficient, and delivering better services to customers.

In 1982, the government launched the Civil Service Computerization Program (CSCP). The programme’s main objective was to enhance public administration through the effective use of ICT. This involved developing new business processes, automating work functions and reducing paperwork for greater internal operational efficiencies. In essence, it provided the foundation for subsequent e-services.

Throughout the 1980s and the 1990s the government started to develop the programme. For instance, the National Information Technology Plan (NITP) was introduced to support cross agency collaboration. This led to the creation of “TradeNet”, an application that enabled exchange of documents between the private sector and various government agencies.

As Singapore entered the new millennium, the e-Government Action Plan (2000-2003) (eGAP 1) was launched. This was the first of what the government now calls the ‘eGov masterplans’.  It set out the aim that:

All government services that can be delivered electronically shall be delivered through electronic means”.

The second e-Government Action Plan (2003-2006) emphasised improving the customer experience, connecting citizens with each other and fostering collaboration between government agencies.

The third, iGov2010 Masterplan (2006-2010), had a strong focus on integrating government services, making sure that processes cut across agencies. In addition, increasing the e-engagement of citizens was also a key objective, particularly in fostering greater bonds within different communities, such as young people.

Most recently, the government introduced the eGov2015 Masterplan (2011-2015), which outlined the vision of collaboration between the government, the private sector and the people through digital technologies. There was also a recognition that the government should act as a platform provider to encourage greater co-creation of new e-services.

Key features of eGov Singapore

  • SingPass

Singpass (Singapore Personal Access) was introduced in March 2003 and enables citizens access to government e-services, from over 60 government agencies via a single platform. In total, there are 3.3 million registered users, with transactions increasing from 4.5 million in 2003 to 57 million in 2013. The system provides a high level of security for users, as well as removing the need for agencies to develop and administer their own.

In July 2015, an Enhanced SingPass was introduced. It included improvements such as the option to customise the SingPass ID, mobile-friendly features, and stronger security capabilities. However, the updates proved to be so popular that on their initial release the website was temporarily inaccessible due to high traffic.

  • data.gov.sg

data.gov.sg was launched in June 2011 and is Singapore’s first stop portal for publicly available government data, as well as applications developed using government data.  The portal has increased to over 8,700 datasets (covering a range of themes, from business and the economy to housing and urban planning), with contributions coming from over 60 government agencies.

The government has introduced schemes such as ideas4apps Challenge and Harnessing Data for Value Creation Call-for-Collaboration (CFC) to encourage the creative use of government data. One example from the portal’s showcase is FixMyStreet, an app which allows citizens to report, view or discuss issues with public facilities, such as litter and broken lifts.

  • eCitizen

eCitizen was introduced in 1999 and is the first-stop portal for government information and services. When the portal was first introduced it pioneered the concept of cross-agency, citizen-centric government services, where users transact with ‘one government’ (the ability to access several government services via the one website).

In 2013, the eCitizen portal was recognised for “Outstanding Achievement” in the Government category of the Interactive Media Awards. It beat 137 other nominees to the award, which evaluates entries based on: design; content; feature; functionality; usability; and standards compliance. Since the portal’s redesign in 2012, there has been a 65% increase in visitors, with significant improvement in the success rates of searches (up to three times).

 What key lessons can countries learn from Singapore?

In the book, National Strategies to Harness Information Technology: Seeking Transformation in Singapore, Finland, the Philippines, and South Africa, Jeannie Chua outlines the key lessons that other countries can take from the Singaporean experience. This includes:

  • Stable political leadership

Singapore has had the same political party in charge of its Cabinet since 1959. This high level of political stability is rare, unlikely to occur in most countries and not necessarily desirable for democracy. However, it does highlight the importance of some level of continuity for progressing a digital agenda, whether that’s within the same government or across different government administrations.

  • Industry collaboration – getting the private sector to do more

The use of government intervention to create opportunities for the private sector and providing effective working partnerships has been very successful in Singapore. This ‘catalyst’ role has encouraged innovation and supported the creation of a successful ICT industry.

  • The willingness to innovate and take risks

Singapore’s willingness to adopt technologies at an early stage has proved to be a success.  For instance, the National Library of Singapore adopted RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology, the use of radio waves to automatically identify people or objects, even though it was relatively untested at the time.

 Final thoughts

Singapore has been successful at creating a strong foundation for e-government and is deserving of all its accolades. The success has been built on a combination of factors including political willingness and economic policies. However, what has also been important is the country’s ability to learn from each stage in its development.

As the country moves forward, key issues such as cybercrime and privacy concerns will have to be addressed. In 2014, there was a security breach involving 1,560 Singpass accounts. A year later, the government introduced a new central government agency for cybersecurity operations. It’s hoped that this central agency will be able to bolster the country’s critical ICT infrastructure.

It’s these measures, and its ability to act swiftly, that will hold Singapore in good stead for the future. This is maybe the real lesson for those looking to emulate Singapore’s e-government success.


Enjoy this article? Read our other recent blogs relating to the digital economy:

IDOX Plc announced on 8 October 2015 that it had acquired the UK trading arm of Reading Room Ltd. Reading Room, founded in 1996, is a digital consultancy business with a focus on delivering websites and digital services that enable its customers to make critical shifts into digital business and client engagement. It has an international reputation for its award winning and innovative approaches to strategic consultancy, design, and technical delivery.

Is the Freedom of Information Act ‘working effectively’?

Wall with the words 'Freedom Street'

Image by Kevan via Creative Commons

 

By Steven McGinty

In July, Parliamentary Secretary for the Cabinet Office, Lord Bridges, announced that there would be an independent cross-party review on Freedom of Information (FOI).

The UK’s FOI Act was introduced in 2000 (in Scotland, FOI legislation came into force in 2005). The Act requires public bodies to publish certain information about their activities and to respond to requests for information from the public.

Since its introduction, the FOI Act has facilitated the release of information from across government. The most high profile releases have involved MPs’ expenses and correspondence between British diplomats ridiculing the notion of a widespread increase in migration from Poland to the UK, once they joined the EU.

Lord Bridges explained that the review would focus on three main issues:

  • whether there is an appropriate balance between having a transparent and accountable government and the need for sensitive information to be protected;
  • whether the Act adequately recognises the need to have a ‘safe space’ for policy development and implementation;
  • whether there is an appropriate balance between the need for public access to information and the burden on public bodies of providing this.

However, is this review really necessary?

Over recent years, a number of public figures have voiced their concerns over the Act. Even the man who introduced it, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, has stated that he was a “naive foolish, irresponsible nincompoop” to introduce it. He also suggested that it undermined “sensible government”.

Similarly, the former head of the Civil Service, Lord O’Donnell has argued that the requirement to release Cabinet minutes risked preventing “real discussions” between ministers.

There has also been discontent from local government, struggling to shoulder the financial cost of the Act. For instance, Ken Thornber, leader of Hampshire County Council, stated that:

We spent £365,000 in 2010 answering freedom of information requests. What else could I do with that money? More social workers, more school inspectors, more spent on road maintenance.”

Although clearly frustrated by the Act, he doesn’t suggest withdrawing it. Instead, he proposes the idea of a £25 charge. His hope is that this would deter individuals from making ‘frivolous requests’.

In the 2010, University College London’s (UCL) Constitution Unit estimated that the cost of FOI requests for local government was £31.6 million. It also highlighted that civil servants spent 1.2m hours responding to nearly 200,000 requests.

Safeguards already exist

However, the review also has its opponents. For example, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web, has attacked the government’s decision. In particular, he criticises the UK Government for using its position at the top of the World Wide Web Foundation’s Open Data Barometer (annual worldwide survey of open government) to justify the review.

Anne Jellema, Chief Executive of the World Wide Web Foundation, has also added her disapproval. She explains that the UK’s position at the top of the Open Data Barometer should not be an excuse to undo the progress that has been made. In addition, she claims that the government is behind European countries on other transparency and accountability issues, such as state surveillance and freedom of the press.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information has raised concerns over the review panel. It highlights that there are no panel members with a proven commitment to transparency. Currently, the five person committee consists of high profile political figures, such as former Conservative Home Secretary Michael Howard and former Labour Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

The Act has been praised for holding public bodies to account. For instance, the Daily Telegraph discovered that local authorities spent £2m on hotel bills over just 3 years, including stays at the Four Seasons in New York.

There are also those who maintain that safeguards are already in place. For example, section 35 of the Act provides a qualified exemption, which limits the release of information to the public. This safeguard is explicitly aimed at protecting the policy-making process.

A key challenge for any state is to strike the appropriate balance between effective governance and public accountability. Yet, with so many differing views, universal agreement is unlikely.  Therefore, no matter the outcome of the review, it’s likely that this debate will continue.


Further reading:

e-Estonia: leading the way on digital government

By Steven McGinty

 “We should talk about a digital-embracing government, not e-government”

These are the words of Andres Kütt, system architect and adviser to the Estonian Information Security Authority. By this he means that the term ‘e-government’ implies a separation between digital and government. So, instead he advocates the term ‘digital-embracing government’ as it highlights that digital should be embedded within all aspects of governance.

Why does the Estonian view matter?

In Estonia, digital has become the norm, and most government services can now be completed online. They have managed to find a way of creating partnerships between the government, a very proactive ICT sector and the citizens of Estonia. As a result, the country of just 1.3 million people has become a leader in digital government.

The ‘core’ of the Estonian model 

  • Electronic ID cards

Key to the Estonian approach is the use of an electronic ID card. As of 2012, more than 1.1 million people have ID cards. The Estonian population have been described as ‘tech savvy’ and ‘pragmatic’. This could be the reason ID cards have been successful there, whereas in the UK concerns about threats to privacy have always led to their rejection.

The ID card acts as both an identity document and, within the European Union, a travel document. It provides a way to verify citizens using online services. The card is secure, and is used for activities such as internet banking, participating in e-elections, and buying public transportation tickets. Mobile phones can also act as an ID card, allowing citizens to confirm their identity online.

  • Population Database

The Estonian government has a national register (called the Population Database).  This provides a single unique identifier for all citizens and residents in Estonia. Similarly to the use of ID cards, these forms of large scale database are unlikely to be accepted by the British public. For instance, concerns were raised when it was suggested that a Scotland-wide ID database, which would have included records from 120 public bodies, could be introduced.

Estonian digital government services

  • e-Elections

Since 2005, Estonians have been able to participate in e-elections using their ID card or their mobile ID. Once a voter’s identity has been verified, the connecting digital signature is separated from the vote. This allows the vote to be anonymous.

In the 2011 Parliamentary elections, 140, 846 people voted online, representing 24% of the eligible voting population. Recent elections have also shown that online voting has had a positive effect on voter turnout.

However, security concerns have been raised over Estonia’s voting system. Researchers from security firm SafelyLocked have suggested that the software has insufficient security safeguards to protect it from hackers.

  • e-Health record

As of January 2010, Estonia’s citizens have been given access to their medical records via a medical information system. It contains information such as diagnoses and doctor’s visits and is accessed using the ID card.

What could the UK learn from Estonia?

In a recent presentation, Andres Kütt was the first person to admit that you can’t simply take the Estonian approach and implement it into another country. However, he does suggest that methodologies used by Estonia can be adopted by other countries to help them come to their own digital solution. There are also wider lessons that can be drawn from the Estonian experience.

In the UK, the Government Digital Service (GDS) have an ongoing arrangement with the Estonian government – a Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2013 committed the two countries to working together to advance digital public services. The GDS highlights that a lot of Estonia’s success comes from the fact that they started with no pre-existing infrastructure. This means that they were able to avoid legacy problems, such as the challenge of integrating older and newer systems.

However, Pete Herlihy of the GDS, reported that on a visit to Estonia he realised that:

  • The government needs to publish details of the data it holds for each of their systems
  • The government needs to publish an agreed set of open data and messaging standards and protocols, to allow easier communication between systems.

Final thoughts

The eventual solution for the UK will have to be different to that of Estonia. Yet it’s clear that when government, the private sector and citizens come together, it is possible to create a society that is digitally connected.

Here are just a few final facts about the success of Estonia.

  • 98% of banking transactions in Estonia are conducted through the internet
  • In 2013, over 95% of income tax declarations were processed through the e-Tax Board
  • Cabinet meetings have become paperless sessions using a web-based document system.

Further reading

IDOX is a market-leading developer and provider of a broad range of software solutions for UK and international public sector organisations – especially local government. These solutions are designed to help clients comply with regulatory requirements, as well as enable online delivery of public services.

Want to know about social work theory or neighbourhood planning? We’ve got the answers!

Subject coverage

By Heather Cameron

With the wealth of information available these days, it’s no wonder we hear the term information overload more and more. Whatever topic you are looking for information on, it can be difficult to find sources you you can rely on, with internet searches retrieving a lot of unreliable material. This is where services such as ours can be invaluable.

Helping you with information overload

The Idox Information Service database contains over 200,000 items with around 200 new items added every week, covering all aspects of public and social policy.

The material consists of research reports, articles from academic journals and industry magazines, policy, guidance, evaluations, case studies, good practice and grey literature. All are chosen and summarised by our research team, so you know that you are accessing reliable resources, many of which are not freely available on the internet.

Breadth of coverage

Popular searches recently carried out by our members have included the following topics, which demonstrate the breadth of our coverage:

  • Theories in social work
  • Child exploitation
  • Anti-discriminatory practice in social work
  • Neighbourhood planning
  • Place-based approaches
  • City deals
  • Smart cities
  • Wellbeing and work
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Planning for social inclusion
  • Wind farms and their impact
  • Green economy
  • Widening access to higher education
  • Joint working between universities and business
  • Social media
  • Marketing and branding
  • Performance management
  • Food banks

Our database has a wide range of material covering various aspects of these topics, including recently published work that keeps our members up-to-date.

Recent research

Members searching on any of these topics can be reassured that the latest research and commentary is included, as the database is updated daily.

For example, for the search on placed-based approaches, a recent article from Regions, The meta-approach to regional development: a re-appraisal of place-based thinking looks at the thinking which informs the practice of place-based approaches to local and regional development.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ recent report on whether worker well-being affects workplace performance could be of particular relevance for the search on well-being and work, as could Public Health England’s report on workplace interventions to improve health and well-being.

With all the media coverage around child exploitation cases in recent times, it’s not surprising that our members continue to search for recent information and good practice in this area. One of the most recent items on child exploitation we have added highlights lessons from Oxfordshire, where the council’s reputation has been raised to one of national exemplar in tackling child exploitation.

Searching on joint working between universities and businesses would reveal promising practice of employer-education engagement across London and the South East in a recent report by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), as part of a study examining how small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and micro-businesses in particular work together with secondary schools and colleges. In addition, a recent UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) report on university and employer collaboration outlines the ways in which universities and employers can form collaborative partnerships to develop higher level skills.

Search strategies

Of course, some of these topics will inevitably retrieve a lot of results, so using our advanced search option can help to narrow things down. For example, searching for “neighbourhood planning” in the title field will return 86 results compared to 277 results when searching in all fields:

Basic search

basic search

Advanced search

advanced searchIn comparison, searching for “neighbourhood planning” on Google returns rather more with around 260,000 results. I think it would be fair to say that it may take a long time to find the quality information required if you had to sift through all these!


 

Members of the Idox Information Service can conduct their own database searches, or can request a search by one of our Research Officers. 

Become a member of the Idox Information Service now, to access our database and current awareness ervices in the areas of public and social policy. Contact us for more details.

What’s happening to make big data use a reality in health and social care?

data-stream-shutterstock_croppedBy Steven McGinty

At the beginning of the year, NHS Director Tim Kelsey described the adoption of new technologies in the NHS as a ‘moral obligation’. He argued that the gaps in knowledge are so wide and so dangerous that they were putting lives at stake.  It’s therefore no surprise that the UK Government, the NHS, and local governments have all been looking at ways to better understand the health and social care environment.

The effective use of ‘big data’ techniques is said to be key to this understanding. Big data has many definitions but industry analysts Gartner define it as:

“high-volume, high-velocity and high-variety information assets that demand cost-effective, innovative forms of information processing for enhanced insight and decision making”

However, if health and social care is to make better use of its data, it’s important that an effective infrastructure is in place. As a result, changes have been made to legislation and a number of initiatives introduced.

Why is it important to know about big data in health and social care?

The effective use of data in health and social care is a key policy aim of the current government (and will most likely continue under future governments).  The changes that have been made so far have had a significant impact on the policies and practices of health and social care organisations. The vast majority focus on information sharing, in particular how organisations share data and who they share data with.

What changes have been made to support big data?

Care.data

This was the most ambitious programme introduced by NHS England. It was developed by the Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) and set out to link the medical records of GP practices with hospitals at a national level. It was expected that datasets from GPs’ records and hospital records would be linked using an identifier such as an NHS number or a person’s date of birth. However, due to concerns raised by the public, particularly in regards to privacy, the programme was delayed. The programme has now resumed but new safeguards have been introduced, such as the commissioning of an advisory board and the ‘opt out’ provision, where patients can opt out from having their data used for anything other than their direct care.

The Health and Social Care Act 2012 and the Care Act 2014

The Acts have both introduced provisions that impact on data. For instance, the Health and Social Care Act enshrines in law the ability of the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) to collect and process confidential personal data. In addition, the Care Act clarifies the position of the Health and Social Care Act by ensuring that the HSCIC doesn’t distribute data unless it’s part of the provision of health and social care or the promotion of health.

Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing

This initiative came from the ‘Improving Information Sharing and Management (IISaM) project’, a joint initiative between Bradford Metropolitan District Council, Leicestershire County Council and the 10 local authorities in Greater Manchester. The centre has been set up to help understand the barriers to information sharing and influence national policy. They hope to achieve these goals through the use of case studies, blogs, the development of toolkits, and any other forms of shared learning. The centre has already published some interesting case studies including the Hampshire Health Record (HHR) and Leicestershire County Council’s Children and Young People’s Service (CYPS) approach to communicating how they deal with data.

These are just some of the steps that have been taken to make sure 2015 is the year of big data. However, if real progress is to be made it’s going to require more than top down leadership and headline grabbing statements. It’s going to require all health and social care organisations to take responsibility and work through their barriers to information sharing.


Further reading

Read our other recent blogs on health and social care:

Become a member of the Idox Information Service now, to access a wealth of further information on health and social care including best practice and commentary. Contact us for more details.

What technology brings to health and social care: a case study of Calderdale and Idox

 

By Steven McGinty

In the second of our articles on health and social care and technology, we‘re going to look at the advantages of using technology, as well as a case study of an innovative partnership between Calderdale Council and Idox.

The ‘Digital working, learning and information sharing’ strategy, developed in partnership with the adult social care sector, identifies three areas where technology would bring a number of benefits:

  • working directly with those who need care and their carers;
  • supporting the learning and professional development of staff;
  • organisational business support and information management systems.

The use of electronic notes, for instance, would be a simple step that would have a significant impact on homecare workers (highlighted in section 5 of the Burstow Commission report on the future of the home care workforce).  At the moment, care workers usually make handwritten notes and leave them in a book in someone’s home.  However, if care workers moved from handwritten notes to electronic notes, information could be shared more easily. This would mean that care managers and families would be able to monitor an individual’s care and conditions remotely.

Organisations have also seen the advantage of incorporating e-learning into staff development.  The Skills for Care ‘Digital capabilities in social care’ report found that 95% of organisations used e-learning courses to support staff development, particularly in administration-related areas, such as health and safety and fire training. For instance, instead of sending staff on full day training sessions, e-learning courses can be completed by staff in an hour, offering greater efficiency and flexibility.

However, the report also highlighted that social care related e-learning courses, which looked at issues such as dignity and respect, were of ‘variable quality’ and not able to compete with the experience of face-to-face and group learning. Therefore, it’s possible that an opportunity is being missed by education and training providers, as technology should be able to provide better solutions than the simple tick box exercises described in the report.

Interestingly, the report also suggests this might not be too far off, as one of the organisations revealed that they were looking at more interactive options and were currently working on a research project with a university in Greece, which focused on the idea of ‘gamification’.

One local authority that’s certainly tried to capitalise on the benefits of technology is Calderdale Council. The council has developed an innovative case management tool to support their day-to-day work, in areas such as child protection, looked after children, and fostering and adopting. Parveen Akhtar, Early Intervention Service Manager, at Calderdale Council explains that:

“The Child Social Care solution was created in partnership with schools, health and police. Providing an intuitive system to meet the requirements of front line social care practitioners, it enhances our ability to provide better services to families within our community.”

The Child Social Care solution creates a single view of a child through combining information from several sources into one record. This means that practitioners are able to create, access and share information easily and securely, supporting informed decisions and putting in place appropriate support for children and their families.

The system has a number of benefits and features, including:

  • improving multi-agency communication and response;
  • reducing the amount of time taken by practitioners to locate another agency involved in a child’s case;
  • enabling practitioners to access information remotely;
  • offering comprehensive performance and reporting tools for providing vital statistics;
  • providing the ability to monitor and track the progress that children and families are making.

Calderdale have teamed up with Idox, a specialist in providing technology, content and funding solutions to government, and are now offering their system to other local authorities. The partnership has already proven to be successful, with Calderdale and Idox providing their solution to councils in the Isles of Scilly and Leeds.

Over the coming years, health and social care will be facing ever greater demands with tighter budgets. For this reason, technology is going to be essential to support better outcomes and more efficient services.  It is therefore important that a strategic approach is taken concerning information technology, and that organisations look at its long term benefits, rather than the short term savings from cuts to investment.

The first article on health and social care and technology, “What’s preventing health and social care from going digital?”, can be found here.

Further reading: