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Adept with Data

30 November 2015

By Nick Smee

I visited the ADEPT (Association Of Directors Of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport) earlier this month. Although we have sponsored the event for a couple of years, this was my first visit to the event and due to the feedback from colleagues who had previously attended, my expectations of the event, and its relevancy to Yotta, were high.

On viewing the agenda for the day, I was struck by how little there seemed to be concerning Highways. Yotta is, after all, primarily concerned with the activities and assets linked to our Highway networks and we were attending to listen, learn and talk to the delegates about those topics. I couldn’t help feel a little frustrated that we had sponsored an event that seemed to lack relevance to us. How wrong I was.

My initial frustration was quickly replaced by intrigue and then admiration for the people attending who have to run a hugely diverse set of activities within a Local Authority. The breadth of topic at the event mirrored their daily activities. Devolution, Waste Management, Highways and many more were all discussed and all spawned a plethora of sub-topics, which were worthy of their own events!

My thoughts quickly turned towards the sheer amount of data one would need to make sensible and effective decisions in each of these topics. The scale of those data sets is undoubtedly huge and the expertise needed to make sense of them is, I imagine, not easy to come by.

The real challenge, for the members of ADEPT, is that they have to correlate many of those data sets to help them make informed decisions on the large questions within their authorities. Let’s take, for example, the topic of devolved government. How many of us could comprehend the magnitude of the data sets that would have to be examined to understand the likely benefits of a devolved approach to the affected communities? The interlinking nature of the activities commonly led by an ADEPT member mean that those activities cannot be viewed in isolation of each other. The time when we operated in our own silos has passed and it is imperative that important decisions, which involve disparate functions, are made using all of the available data sets that an Authority and its partners have.

Getting the data is not the issue; most authorities have more data than they know what to do with. The task of making sense and effective use of it is the difficult bit. That’s often impeded by internal or external attitudes of protectionism and a lack of transparency. Those days where isolation allowed for those attitudes are history and we must all, both Public and Private sectors, facilitate access to information to allow for a better decision making process that delivers the best end result.

I write as someone who does not have a long career in the Highways sector. When I first joined Yotta, I was shocked at how difficult it was to understand the data that we were capturing for our customers. This wasn’t a Yotta issue specifically, it was an industry-wide problem. We’ve worked hard to try to bring a more transparent and creative approach to consuming the data our customers have. It’s my belief that people will use a data centric approach to decision making if they have simpler access to the data, and are able use it to create easy to understand outputs which support their decisions.

Our strategy, as a business that partners Government across the UK and the world, is built entirely on the premise of using data to make the best possible decisions, no matter where that data comes from. If it is applicable to a decision making process then we will strive to use it to help our customers unlock the right outcome.

I started this blog by saying that I was initially frustrated by the event at ADEPT. By the end of the event that feeling had been replaced entirely by two main thoughts. They were, admiration for those people charged with making such complex decisions and excitement that our belief in the creative and empowering use of data, saw us aligned so closely with the issues facing the group of people I’d just spent two days with.

I’m already looking forward to next year’s event.

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