Centre for Public Engagement

Blog: Data - People - Action!

Using data to transform lives and benefit society

Partnerships are one of many approaches used in public engagement. Effective partnerships offer a host of opportunities towards public engagement. They strengthen relationships, provide essential insights and share experiences.

At the University of Essex, partnerships are vital to our work on public engagement.

In this post, Chief Scientific Adviser Dr Alejandro Quiroz Flores explores a unique partnership between the University, Essex County Council and Essex Police in a data sharing programme – the Essex Centre for Data Analytics (ECDA).

What makes it unique?

  • A Chief Scientific Adviser, jointly appointed by the University and Essex County Council, provides academic leadership to the county council
  • Collaborating with community leaders to build engagement and trust
  • Sharing the process of knowledge creation with the public and validating the results of the analysis with communities across the county
  • People and the public are the experts at ECDA and the ultimate beneficiaries of the work we do

The Big Data Revolution has given the University of Essex an opportunity to transform lives and benefit society while learning from it. For this reason, we have invested in a data ecosystem with a state-of-the-art research infrastructure supported by world-class researchers, research centres, and long-term training of data scientists.

In order to maximize the transformational impact of our investment on analytics and data science, we have formed a series of strategic partnerships. According to the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement, partnerships are one of the many ways in which universities can co-develop and share knowledge with the public.

The power of data

In this light, the University, Essex County Council, and Essex Police launched the Essex Centre for Data Analytics (ECDA) in June 2019. ECDA is a programme designed ethically to share data and combine it with the experience of people and communities across Essex, to create powerful insight and inform policy decisions. At the heart is a philosophy of “data, people, and action” that drives a system that includes a network of analysts, a postgraduate taught degree, and training for the public sector, among many others components. Our goal is to make Essex an international leader in using the power of data science and artificial intelligence in public policy.

ECDA is the culmination of a series of successful programmes initiated by Essex Partners, a collection of organisations dedicated to improve the county. Essex Partners came together to form a vision for the Future of Essex. One project is Essex Innovates — sponsored by the University, Essex County Council, and Essex Police.

Innovates uses data analytics to support early intervention strategies. The initiative was accompanied by Essex Data, a program launched in 2016 with the support of a grant from central government to promote system-wide transformation. The University has been part of this priority project from its inception. The join appointment of a Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA), by the University and Essex County Council, is unique in this partnership. The CSA provides academic leadership to the county council at large and extends the collaboration between institutions in data science and artificial intelligence.

Focus on human challenges

The partnership at the heart of ECDA gives it a strong social mission — while the Centre relies on technical and scientific components, it focuses on intrinsically human challenges ranging from domestic abuse and homelessness to mental health and school readiness. These are problems that the people in Essex face on a day-to-day basis and ECDA is there to address them.

In this context, the insight produced by the computational techniques at ECDA is matched with the experience of people and communities across the county. As an example, the New Generations programme at Essex Innovates used anonymous data to identify small geographical areas in Basildon that could use additional support to strengthen school readiness so that children could make the best out of school when they start the reception period. As part of the research, colleagues at Essex Innovates engaged with community leaders, to obtain feedback and to get a better picture of the issues. The programme was so successful that the New Generations project was nominated for the Local Government Awards in 2018. This type of engagement is there to assure that ECDA never misses “the forest for the trees,” which is crucial in or quest to build public trust on how we use data for action.

Sharing knowledge, sharing a vision

To further promote public engagement, the work of ECDA is showcased in workshops and conferences around the country in order to share the vision of the program, receive feedback, ask new research questions, and adapt to new challenges. As indicated by the Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research, this is another form of sharing knowledge with the public and making it part of the research. For example, in the Catalyst Conference of 2019, ECDA members led a workshop on how to promote a culture of evidence in organizations. Other team members have been engaging with audiences at NESTA’s City Data Conference and the Police, Fire, and Crime Commissioner for Essex Conference. At the end of 2019, I will be sharing more news about ECDA at the Annual Conference of LGComms and offer suggestions on the role of communication and marketing teams in a world of predictive analytics in government.

One of the most exciting aspects of ECDA is that it is designed as a long-term institution rather than a short-term initiative. Anecdotal and scientific evidence shows that institutions are crucial for the success of most social, economic, and political endeavours. Nevertheless, successful institutions are not created overnight: they need leadership and vision, as well as resources and partnerships, to overcome rigid historical conditions and adapt to new circumstances. This is also where ECDA shines. The Centre is much more than data science and artificial intelligence for policy; it is an institution that will bring about system change and provide a foundation of evidence and scientific rigor that will inform policy making for many years to come.

Powerful insight to inform policy decisions

In summary, people and the public are part of ECDA’s core ways of working. The Vision of Essex as established by Essex Partners is a reflection of the demands and aspirations of the people in the county. ECDA as a partnership institution is helping to bring this vision to life by ethically sharing data in order to create powerful insight and inform policy decisions. We believe that this process will be robust and successful because we aim at sharing the process of knowledge creation with the public and validating the results of the analysis with communities across the county. In other words, people and the public are the experts at ECDA and the ultimate beneficiaries of the work we do, and this is how we plan to move forward into the future and create knowledge for action.