Research Case Study

Impact: Catalyst Project – Improving community services through the power of data

We helped Essex County Council and Suffolk County Council use cutting-edge technology to predict risk, evaluate public service initiatives and target services for vulnerable people.

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    Economy, business, politics and society
    Health and wellbeing


When it comes to providing services for the most vulnerable people in society, the goal is better prevention and early intervention, rather than later reaction.

Through the Catalyst Project, the University of Essex helped Essex County Council (ECC) and Suffolk County Council (SCC) use cutting-edge scientific methods to predict risk, evaluate services and better target valuable resources. Funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) in 2015 and monitored by the Office for Students (OfS), the Catalyst Project involved the University’s cross-disciplinary expertise in data analytics, big data and evaluation and supported both county councils, as well as other local partners such as Essex Police, to assess risks for vulnerable members of the community and provide evaluation techniques to fully understand the impact of council initiatives.

Through the Catalyst Project, our Essex researchers were able to apply their knowledge and skills to “real life” problems presented by the public service partners. This proved to be an invaluable opportunity for all and enabled the University to show how academic research could contribute and have impact on public life.

A wide range of training events and seminars on predictive analytics, evaluation and analytical software were delivered during the Catalyst Project, which provided a foundation for the University’s Business and Local Government Data Research Centre’s training programs and data science programs for the public sector.

Although the Catalyst Project ended in 2020, a continued close working relationship on data analysis between local authorities and the University has been guaranteed through their collaboration in multiple initiatives, such as the Essex Centre for Data Analytics (ECDA) – an innovative partnership between the University, ECC, and Essex Police to use data analytics as a means of understanding, predicting and subsequently reducing risk.

The relationship nurtured by the Catalyst Project between these local authorities and the University has provided an excellent example of how to organise data science collaboration that will serve as a reference in the future and a precedent of success.

The Project’s three main initiatives:

Evaluating impact of public services

Evidence-based evaluation of public service programmes helps councils to target areas with the highest impact potential and to allocate scarce resources through informed decision making. The University’s Catalyst Evaluation Team supported local authority initiatives targeted at helping vulnerable community members. The team developed robust, credible evaluation metrics and tools to conduct evaluations of completed, ongoing and future projects.

"The Catalyst Evaluation Team have supported us to harness the power of system data to positively impact policy and decision making, placing us at the forefront of collaborative public service partnerships seeking innovative solutions to the challenges we face. The team provided an evaluation vision and approach that enabled the Essex Data programme to meaningfully evaluate community services for vulnerable people within the county and the findings have been helpful in informing Essex Partners’ work."
Richard Puleston Director of Strategy, Insight and Engagement, Essex County Council

One of the most impactful relationships was with Essex County Fire and Rescue Services (ECFRS), working with their Home Safety Team, initially to evaluate their Parish Safety Volunteers Programme, and eventually to establish evaluation methods for their Home Safety Department as a whole. The work won impact awards for collaboration, and the methods are still in use at ECFRS today.

Our team also worked with West Suffolk Council in evaluating their social prescribing LifeLink programme which helped the LifeLink managers justify requests to extend and continue providing the service.

A key element of the team’s work was developing the Spotlight Toolkit, created to empower local authorities by educating them about evaluation and teaching them how to design evaluations to suit their own demands.

Risk stratification

The Catalyst Risk Stratification team’s academic expertise in data analytics and visualisation helped to uncover patterns and offer innovative predictive insight to help decision-making in public service initiatives aimed at helping vulnerable groups.

The Team focused on four areas:

  • Children at risk of going into care
  • MASH (Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub)
  • NEET (Not in Employment, Education or Training)
  • School readiness

The Team’s expertise in data analytics enabled partners to better understand what they could achieve with the social care and education data they held, and allowed them to think strategically about their data, including the implementation of consistent and accurate data collation processes.

The project also allowed the partners to upskill their in-house data analysts and will, in the longer term, allow them to prevent and manage increasing pressures on public services by identifying community members at highest risk of becoming vulnerable to provide timely responses and targeted interventions.

Essex Volunteering Hub

A major aim of the Catalyst Project was to stimulate activity between the University and communities in Colchester and surrounding areas by strengthening existing community-based volunteering activity, developing new volunteering opportunities and increasing the up-take of student volunteering and time spent volunteering.

Working with the Essex Students’ Union VTeam, the Catalyst Project launched the Essex Volunteering Hub (EVHub), a single and sustainable one-stop-shop offering easy access for students to all the student volunteering opportunities offered by University groups, local community groups, non-profit and public sector organisations.

The new EVHub has:

  • Increased choice of volunteering opportunities offered
  • Established new connections with local communities
  • Allowed the VTeam to strengthen the range of regular volunteering projects with local schools, care homes, charities, refugee centre, community centres and encourage students to take action and tackle social issues
  • Increased the range of transferable skills that students can acquire, offering benefits to their personal development and wellbeing, studies and subsequent employability
  • Enhanced the existing relationship between the University, our local communities and local voluntary sector partners

Dr Alejandro Quiroz Flores, Chief Scientific Adviser for Essex, said: “The Catalyst Project has been one of the most successful programs of collaboration between the University of Essex and local partners in the region. The project ended in 2020, but it continues to influence how we and our partners use or research for the benefit of communities.

“The Catalyst shaped collaboration between organisations, but it also shaped the interaction of individuals across organisations, thus creating a network that continues to operate across the region. Moreover, the volunteering stream would go on to have an important effect during the pandemic. Altogether, the Catalyst Project has been a very successful program that provided a foundation for our work with the public sector and a pillar of volunteering in Essex. For this, we are grateful to the OfS and our partners for their continued support over the life of the project and beyond.”

HEFCE logo
Essex County Council logo
VTeam logo
Suffolk County Counsil
Essex partners logo