Data – Providing Clarity in Crisis

As an authority, Essex County Council is no stranger to crisis management. We have a large coastline and as such regularly face flooding risks. We have well practiced processes in place to deal with these short-term crises. The processes work well and are equally applicable to other events. As a data team we have processes and products “on the shelf” ready to go for this kind of short, sharp, immediate response. We provide a picture of scale, who is most vulnerable and where they are.

Firstly, the scale and scope of the problem at hand meant we were dealing with far larger datasets than we normally would do in an emergency, and far more datasets. For the pandemic, to a certain extent we had knowledge of what we were working with through colleagues in our public health teams, but Homes for Ukraine presented technical and knowledge-based challenges, along with the longevity of the crisis.

To successfully manage the data we had to find sustainable solutions and apply what we learnt from the pandemic. This meant we were able to start producing intelligence for the crisis management team the day after we started to receive data. From a data perspective the development of our data system, and improvements in reporting worked really well, because we had started things correctly. As system changes began to settle and reporting requirements firmed up we started to reflect on the use of data, and it’s importance in responding to crises.

There are a lot of phrases commonly uttered around data and how we should use it. In the data community we often talk about evidence led decisions and having a data first strategy. We talk about data being timely and accurate. As data professionals we know why these things are important but looking back, certainly pre-pandemic, I would say that I would have struggled to convey why they make a difference in a way that business leaders within the organisation would understand.

Data integrity is perhaps the key underpinning principle in a crisis such as that faced in the Homes for Ukraine scheme. It may seem an obvious place to start, but without it we wouldn’t have been able to deliver a safe and stable environment for our Ukrainian guests. Understanding why having timely, accurate, complete and consistent data is so important relies on realising two key features of the crisis and response. First is the question of situational awareness. As mentioned before, in terms of the scenario it was a bit of a leap into the unknown – we didn’t really know what to expect. Without experience to fall back on our crisis management team relied on data to provide an accurate picture of what was happening and what we could expect.

The second reason that accurate and timely information was so important was the breadth of the scheme, and the collaboration required. As an authority it became clear very early on that the Homes for Ukraine scheme would have a wide impact across so much of our business, and that of our partners. Our 12 district partners needed accurate and up to date information to ensure they could check that properties were suitable to house the proposed guests. Our education teams and schools needed to know how many additional children to expect in their areas so they could plan and provide the right resources. Our social care teams needed to know when guests were arriving to ensure that they were safe. Over and above this our crisis management team needed a picture of all of this so they could allocate resource, budget and prioritise any bottlenecks in the processes. And this continues as the conflict rumbles on in Ukraine.

Despite all these individual tasks the biggest difference that data has made in Homes for Ukraine has been that it has provided “the big picture” overview. It’s natural in a crisis, when the pressure is on, for each individual or team to focus on their area of responsibility. Throughout the scheme the data and analytics team has worked with all the areas and provided a central overview. Given the specifics of the challenge it has been the data team who have seen the big picture of the situation. Without data there would be no meaningful intelligence for the scheme and no way to manage effectively.

And, speaking of meaningful insight we know that for insight to be effective the products and messages need to be intelligent and engaging. Regardless of the messages we are trying to get across it is important to ensure that what we produce, and present is clear, simple and most importantly actionable, possibly even more so in a crisis. It’s our role to ensure that, despite the pressures our decision makers can make logical and informed decisions to ensure that the individuals (in this case our Ukrainian guests) are safe, secure, settled and supported in a stable environment as quickly as possible. I am incredibly proud of our team and the work they have done, always under pressure but always delivering high quality and timely insight.

To finish I would like to just touch on just how much our world has changed over the years and what supporting this crisis has meant to me personally. I sat quietly and reflectively on a warm April afternoon recently as I said goodbye to my grandfather who would have turned 98 this month. He grew up on a farm in Poland with his family until the outbreak of the second world war. In his village the German soldiers arrived during the night and dragged everyone out of their homes. At gunpoint families were separated from one another, forced onto trains and taken to labour camps where they stayed and worked for the duration of the war. My grandfather never saw his father alive again.

At the end of the war my grandfather spent two more years at the camps before finally making his way to the UK and his new life. Had they had the technology, communications, and data we have now he would have waited weeks rather than years to re-settle. Data and our profession can make such a difference to people. Let’s be proud of the positive difference we can make.

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