Council Spotlight: East Sussex and Data to Insight
For November’s edition of the Council Spotlight, we invited East Sussex County Council to share the story of Data to Insight, a national children’s services data collaboration. East Sussex County Council hosts Data to Insight as part of the South East Sector Led Improvement Programme.
Alistair Herbert, Data to Insight Manager, talks about how his core team supports a broad community of local authority analysts helping each other deliver high quality data work, including designing, developing and maintaining Data to Insight’s shared toolkit.
In children’s services data teams, we know that the quality of our data work matters.
High-quality data is crucial to inform national spending decisions. Strong analysis helps local leaders see what’s really happening in their services. And the ability to accurately forecast things — like how many children will need help, or budgets for services — ensures that when an individual child really needs help, that help is there for them.
Data to Insight (D2I) is a small dedicated team at the heart of a longstanding collaborative community of analysts in local authority (LA) children’s services departments.
Set up by LAs with help from the Department for Education and Ofsted, we maintain data tools which any LA can use to combine national data publications with their extensive local datasets to generate new insights and improve services for children.
We work across regions and localities, drawing together diverse teams to create new things and learn new skills, and we also advocate for LA interests in conversations with central government. Crucially, we belong to LAs, which means that LA data people drive the work we do together.
Our underlying ethos is “build once, use 152 times” — we try to do the things that every LA analyst needs to do once, via Data to Insight, and free up time locally to dedicate to meaningful analysis. One analyst estimates that our Benchmarking Tool saves them 7–14 hours of work every time the DfE publishes new data.
We’re hosted by East Sussex County Council on behalf of all councils across England’s nine administrative regions. The LA hosting keeps our operational costs low, keeps us linked into LA workstyles, and allows us to recruit existing experts without removing them from local government service. The team at East Sussex are capable, supportive and really engaged with the tools we develop, which means we all get a lot from the partnership.
Our latest success
We successfully co-developed a Children Looked After Placement Modelling Tool, based around datasets which LAs already record to keep track of the children in their care. The tool helps LAs ensure each child has access to appropriate support, and ensure councils can afford to keep providing that support.
With input from Dudley, Derby, and East Sussex, we worked with data scientists and service leaders to push our sector’s technical capabilities and create a new forecasting approach. The tool models complex historical patterns in placements for Children Looked After (CLA) and combines these with local financial data and expectations about the future, to help service leaders prepare for the children they may need to accommodate in the coming years.
Our tool helps service leaders set realistic budget expectations, but they can also go further and predict the balance of cost and benefit for different strategies they are considering. For example, if they know how much it would cost to build a new children’s home, they can use the tool to quickly see how likely it is that they’ll save money compared to buying equivalent provision from an external agency. Then they can tie this back to the predictive model to see how likely it is that they’ll need the extra provision in the first place.
The tool grew out of user research with 40+ experts from around 20 LAs. We knew accessibility would be critical, so we built a free and open source tool in software the sector already uses, looking at data the sector already produces. We launched in October 2021 and the tool has already been downloaded by at least a third of LAs — 143 downloads by 109 users in the first month. We’re busily working with data analysts and commissioners across several dozen of these to refine the tool for a future release, but initial feedback is already overwhelmingly positive:
‘It does exactly what we asked for it to do during the design phase — council strategy is crucial and this allows us to test our strategy against likely impact’
— Michael Robinson, Strategic Commissioning Manager, Dudley Council
‘When we shared the demand modelling tool with…heads of service and finance colleagues, they were very impressed and asked how quickly we input the most recent data into the tool.’
— Alastair Lee, Children’s Services: Data, Research and Information Management Team, East Sussex County Council.
How Local Digital Funding helps us
As a community we work together to identify and deliver the projects our sector needs most, which means our value of working in the open aligns well with the Local Digital Declaration. The Declaration also seeks to break dependence on expensive and inflexible technology; as a collaborative community building free modular tools to get around some of the existing system costs and limitations, these concepts, together with the rapid and flexible funding model, made Local Digital an ideal way for us to enhance our work.
We see the work we do as a virtuous circle: The more engaged our community, the better project outputs we can deliver. The better our outputs, the more people want to be involved. The right project can improve our impact on both counts — as well as delivering its own benefits. Local Digital helps us respond flexibly to emerging ideas, and capitalise on the best ones at national scale.
In this way, a small discovery project like our Demand Modelling tool for 2020 can grow via experimentation and user research until it turns into something like the Children Looked After Placement Modelling Tool. The original tool was funded by the LocalDigital C-19 Challenge fund to help LAs predict increases in referrals to children’s social care after the first national lockdown. The new tool sets out to help LA commissioners make sure they have the right placements available for the coming year — decisions which, if made badly, can cost a local authority as much as £0.25M for a single child.
Our tools are free to LAs, ensuring maximum possible impact from each project. Often the LAs who most need our support are those with limited resources and little time to spend on what we’re doing, which makes this especially important.
How we work as a data community
Data to Insight’s biggest asset has always been its community:
“I just want to say what a huge impact you’re having on developing some great tools and bringing consistency to our data world.
Your updates are so helpful and you’ve generated some great engagement nationally which is very hard to do. I always look forward to your emails and me and my team always find something to pique our interest, thank you!”
— Tamsin Stone, Head of Performance, Outcomes and Quality Assurance, Wiltshire Council
For each project we support a dedicated team with volunteer time from analysts across multiple LAs. We then draw in a wider feedback circle of other LAs to give fresh perspectives. To keep our work on track, we use a mix of weekly catch-ups, show and tells, workshops, blogs, videos, open project management boards and Slack workspaces. This makes sure that any colleagues who want to be involved can find their way into the team. It’s particularly important to have a diverse range of engagement routes because our colleagues have such different skills, capabilities and quantities of time to share with us.
Working in the open draws more people in, and often the latecomers to a project bring fresh perspectives and rigorous testing which dramatically improve the final outputs. Sometimes they become the originators of the next project we tackle.
The impact of our tools so far
A crucial point to make about our successes to date is that they benefit not only from our own capabilities and hard work, but from choosing solvable problems in a favourable environment. The necessary conditions for success are typically threefold: First, a data landscape with embedded standards allowing standardised tool development and rapid uptake by LAs. Second, a strong community in the sector which exists because it needs to, and already wants to work together. Third, a clear and achievable challenge for that community to tackle.
The CLA Placement Modelling Tool is a great example of this, but there are plenty of others:
- ChAT (Children’s Services Analysis Tool) allows LAs to produce detailed analysis covering every stage of the social care pathway
- Our Quality CLA Data project (also supported by Local Digital) is not only improving the quality of data which LAs use to make crucial decisions about children’s care, but it’s helping LA analysts develop new skills in Python programming by including volunteers in the development team alongside paid data scientists
- Our Benchmarking Tool, mentioned earlier, saves every LA the work of transforming the national datasets published by the Department for Education, so they can instead get on with analysing the outputs and generating local insights
- Our apprenticeship scheme is tailored to children’s services data analysts and is building skills across our sector
- Our website supports LA analysts all over the country, and membership is still growing
All of these projects offer three kinds of impact:
- Local data is higher quality, and LAs are better equipped to explore their data, so we can make better decisions about how social workers spend their time
- Local excellence is shared across regional borders, so what works well in one LA can benefit colleagues elsewhere
- Where LAs use these benefits to improve their decision-making, services for children get better — we help ensure the right services are there to meet each child’s needs, and we know that doing this typically also leads to cost savings
As data professionals, the impact of our work isn’t always immediately obvious, but it can still be huge — and the decisions we help local authorities make can affect thousands of young people. We are driven by this and it matters to us that we do it well; ultimately the positive impact for children is at the heart of what we do.
If you’d like to talk about this work, or learn more about any of the tools we’re currently developing and supporting, do feel free to get in touch. We’re a small central team but our strength is in the relationships we can build between local authorities and other partners, so we’re always happy to talk.
Do you want to get involved in a future Council Spotlight?
Each month, we’ll be showcasing a different story like Data to Insight’s. Why not highlight your achievements and contributions to the local digital movement?
To take part, fill out the online form to nominate:
- your council/a specific team within your council
- a colleague(s)
- or a great digital project
There are only 7 short questions, and the form should take no more than a few minutes to fill out. We look forward to hearing from you!