Blog: Working together with data to improve public services

  • Date

    Mon 24 Feb 20

Alejandro Quiroz Flores

Ahead of an Essex delegation visiting Colombia and Mexico, Dr Alejandro Quiroz Flores explains how his role at Chief Scientific Adviser for Essex can be translated elsewhere to help embrace the digital evolution across the globe.

Dr Alejandro Quiroz Flores has had a varied career including roles as a policymaker, civil servant and academic.

From working for the Mexican National Council for Science and Technology to studying at some of the best higher education institutions in Mexico, the US, and the UK, Dr Quiroz Flores, from the University of Essex in the UK, is bringing all those skills together for his current role at Chief Scientific Adviser for Essex.

Here, in this blog, he explains the importance of data and how it can be used to help governments across the world. In Mexico, people and government are embracing the digital revolution and they are creating and collecting more data than ever before. In this context, data initiatives in Mexico and abroad, such as the Essex Centre for Data Analytics, rely on an enthusiasm and support for science, data, and computing. Mexican universities and research centres are joining this movement and we hope to collaborate and support this progress through collaboration.

Tackling complex challenges in society through collaboration in data science

“Data has been an essential part of government for thousands of years. The Romans ran censuses every five years. Just after William Duke of Normandy became King of England in 1066, he commissioned a survey of land holdings and resources of 11th Century England. Today, the Domesday Book is a treasured public record of the state of medieval England.

Clearly, the amount of data collected by governments is now of a magnitude larger than the data of medieval times. The use of data for government and public policy requires scientific analysis. The use of large amounts of data requires specific methods that range from traditional statistics to artificial intelligence. As Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) to Essex County Council, I promote the role of science in local government and support the introduction of data science methods to policy making.

As an expert in statistics and machine learning, I support the delivery of the Essex Centre of Data Analytics (ECDA). This Centre is the result of a partnership between the University of Essex, Essex County Council and Essex Police. This highly innovative Centre tackles complex challenges in the region through collaboration in data science. Our goal is to use data from multiple agencies according to the highest ethical standards to understand the problems that affect the people of Essex. Our goal is to generate knowledge that will lead to actions to improve our county.

In recent years, knife crime in England has reached levels never seen in decades and the ECDA is using data to understand it. We are interested in knowing why individuals have incentives to carry knives and to use them. This depends on a number of factors related not only to policing, but also to education and deprivation. In this light, we take a collaborative, multi-agency approach that looks at multiple datasets to understand knife crime.

Of course, data is only part of the equation. Data needs to be used responsibly and ethically, while protecting privacy. This is a cornerstone of our work and a topic I am interested in. Moreover, in my role as CSA, I also facilitate and coordinate the training in data science that is necessary to carry out analytics work. As an academic, I can reach out to colleagues and research centres at the university to provide courses in statistics, computer software, and data science for public policy. In this sense, ECDA and our work as partners is also unique and with a long-term view, a clear goal is to increase capacity for data science in the region.

As I mentioned before, I also promote the role of science in local government. Beyond data and statistics, science can bring benefits to policy. In my role, I support academic collaboration between local government and university researchers in areas that range from inequality to social care and from health to economic growth. Our work also relies on multiple methods that cover game theory to causal inference.

As an academic and quantitative social scientist, all these projects are incredibly exciting. However, the most rewarding part of the work I do is the collaboration between partners. Most ministries in central government have a CSA. However, Essex County Council and the University of Essex are the only organisations in the country that have a jointly appointed CSA. Collaboration is, therefore, at the centre of my role.

In this light, I organise and participate in Challenge Labs with partners across the region, including not only ECC, but Essex Police, National Health Service Trusts and Clinical Commissioning Groups, NGOs, and business such as BT. Indeed, it is a privilege to be in a position that allows me to collaborate with a Chief Constable and a Chief Executive of a council. However, I also work with commissioners, data analysts, former nurses and care workers, police inspectors, as well as academics, human rights experts, mathematicians and computer scientists.

To some extent, I have now come full circle since I started my journey as an academic and policy practitioner in Mexico. Inspired by the events of the late 1980s in Mexico, I envisioned a career that would combine the best of science and the impact of policy. I have had the privilege of studying in the best institutions of higher education in Mexico, the US, and the UK, and had the opportunity to use this during my time at National Council for Science and Technology. This long journey has allowed me to embrace my current role and give back to the people in my community. I can only hope that this story provides some inspiration to young people in Mexico and that it encourages them to search for more, both at home and abroad.”