The Liquid Big Data Platform – a digital business model for all organisations?

A Liquid Big Data Platform uses cloud technology and agile ways of working to enable organisations to share and analyse large volumes of data together for their mutual benefit.

If this model is scaled to a global level where any organisation (both large and small) anywhere in the world could use it collaboratively, what new business models could potentially emerge?

Here are some ideas…

Accelerated design advantage

Many organisations are already exploiting Big Data driven Machine Learning to improve their services in real time (such as search engine optimisation, medical diagnosis and fraud detection).

In the so-called “arms race”, big name tech, automotive and pharmaceutical companies are reportedly spending billions of dollars annually to realise their own IP in this area of Artificial Intelligence. A potential strategic implication is that these first movers will create barriers of entry that prevent other competitors (including small or medium sized enterprises) using AI as a disruptive source of rapid, responsive service design and organisational agility.

A global Liquid Big Data Platform could enable a form of co-opetition between these competitors to realise shared Machine Learning capabilities as a source of competitive advantage that would be unfeasible using their own limited resources. Also, by sharing with each other data or insights about their customers or services could lead to forms of innovation first movers can’t deliver in their silo positions.

Public sector power house

In the UK, health and social care organisations are exploring ways to share Big Data collaboratively to deliver better outcomes for their service users and wider society. A key technical challenge they face is interoperability – the ability of different systems to talk to each other effectively – as their data is often on different legacy networks and applications arguably not originally designed for such a cross-boundary approach.

A cloud-based Liquid Big Data Platform could enable these organisations to overcome these technical barriers to focus on the real value of this business model – joined up preventative and reactive care delivery. Also, if this platform is scalable it could enable organisations with the right analytical capabilities to efficiently power such services in other countries – global collaboration as a source of public service improvement.

Global cost optimiser

Many organisations are migrating their IT assets to cloud to enable cost savings and increased market responsiveness. This includes applications, data and other digital assets that are the source of their competitive advantage. For example, many digital disruptors exploit cloud capabilities to create platforms for services across different countries or the emergence of government transactional services on one shared platform.

An agile Liquid Big Data Platform could continually optimise such benefits by seamlessly moving these assets to different geographies or markets that offer the lowest costs and best support.  For example it could be continually transferring hosting services to different countries with the most favourable exchange rates or where there are higher skilled technical development resources.

If you would like more information about how Big Data can benefit your organisation please contact the Sopra Steria Digital Practice.

SMEs are the engine room of the UK economy but they need large firms to succeed

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) are a crucial engine of economic growth. There are 1.2 million SME employers in the UK who are responsible for fourteen million jobs. And, over the past twelve months, half of these SMEs have launched a new or innovative product or service. The UK compares particularly well internationally in its percentage of small high-growth technology firms.

But too many viable businesses fail or do not reach their full potential

Typical obstacles include inadequate finance and managerial shortcomings. The Digital Economy Minister, Ed Vaizey, recently called for ideas on how Government can support entrepreneurial activity and promote digital innovation. In our response we highlighted the Government’s role in creating an open and supportive framework for SMEs to grow and providing specific support to those with the most growth potential.

This framework includes recognising that SMEs do not grow in isolation but in partnership with larger companies. For example, SMEs rely on larger firms at the top of supply chains for new opportunities and for the commercialisation of their ideas. In return larger firms benefit from new types of breakthrough innovation developed by SMEs that can deliver superior outcomes for customers, and even shift a market.

How can SMEs and large firms work together?

Like other large firms, Sopra Steria maintains a diverse supplier base including SMEs. During the first half of 2015 we spent over £18 million with over 500 SME suppliers across the UK. We work hard to foster long-term relationships with smaller businesses that bring creativity and add value to our own skills and capability.

But large firms also need to understand that late payment is a frequent bugbear of SMEs. We are proud of our reputation as a responsible business partner and our responsible business practices. That is why we signed, and comply with, the strict standards of the Prompt Payment Code. This means that we give clear guidance to suppliers and pay suppliers on time.

Large firms are already working with Local Enterprise Partnerships, universities and other partners to put in place local solutions to help SMEs to grow. This includes business support through Growth Hubs, loan schemes to finance expansion activities and advice on export markets through UKTI. Devolution through City Deals and Growth Deals will encourage more growth and innovation.

Large firms can support this growth through events that highlight opportunities to work with them and their partners. In Cleveland (where we have a strategic partnership with the police) we run supplier open days, including bidding advice surgeries, and we attend meet-the-buyer events. This can make a tangible difference to an SME; a good example is a local firm that received coaching and went on to win a contract with the police to provide specialist uniforms.

Please get in touch by email to share your thoughts on SMEs and large firms working together, particularly if you have ideas or experience of the obstacles or enablers of partnership working. Or visit the Sopra Steria website for further details about how we conduct business with SMEs and other suppliers .

Sharing personal data – challenges and solutions

Some interesting recent strategy work on data sharing between Police, NHS agencies and schools has reminded me of the challenges that face any attempt to achieve significant sharing of personal data in the public sector.  By significant I mean anything involving multiple organisations, sensitive data, large data volumes and different content (or at least two of these factors!).

Our recent work was in response to a forthcoming legislative requirement for professionals in the Police and NHS to send child well-being concerns to teachers in state schools.  This is just the initial urgent requirement, later sharing could involve other agencies (e.g. Social Services, Fire and Rescue and the Third Sector), additional content (e.g. shared plans) and the outward sharing of collated data from schools to all of the above partners.  All the familiar challenges present themselves – for example, lack of a single secure communications infrastructure, the source data is in a large number of diverse systems, there is no standard for a well-being concern, governance arrangements are complex, there are many stakeholders, etc, etc.  Not to mention, very tight timescales and high expectations!

This work has led me to attempt to summarise the key factors that influence a data sharing solution, and the main ways that sharing can be achieved.  Understanding all the key factors that need to be considered and the technical options available can help avoid reinvention of the wheel.

I have also drawn on a previous study we undertook of all the main NHS and social care data sharing solutions in Scotland, ranging from the Orkneys (population about 20,000) to NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (serving 1.2 million people, and covering six complete local authorities and parts of two others).  This study revealed the diversity of requirements, constraints and solutions.

For example the factors can include:

  • What is the distribution mode?
  • Will data be pushed or pulled?
  • What is being shared?
  • What is the urgency?
  • How will data be matched?
  • What’s the transport mechanism?

And several others …

Although there’s a risk of over simplification I’ve found it helpful to categorise the solutions into five architectural models:

  • Single shared system
  • Stand-alone central store
  • Integrated central store
  • Data portal
  • Central messaging hub

It should be stressed that there are overlaps between the models, and one type of solution can evolve into another.

These solutions range in complexity from the simple (for example, a single shared system), to the very complex (for example, a sophisticated multi-hub messaging model with routing and protocol intelligence built into the hubs, linking to a variety of local data sharing solutions).

From this…

single-shared-system

To this…

Central-messaging-hub

I have focused on the requirements that need a technical solution, and the forms that these solutions can take.  However it’s important to remember that any data sharing solution also needs to consider equally important factors such as the governance, security and benefits.

It’s a large and complicated subject for a blog, so if you are interested in a little more detail, have a look at my paper on data matching and routing.

 

ISPs and data sharing governance

As I near the end of another interesting and challenging data sharing consultancy exercise I thought it would be useful to take a step back and consider how public sector organisations can overcome some of the big challenges of sharing personal data.  I am thinking mainly of data sharing in the health, social services, education and justice domains, because these are the areas that have dominated my time recently, but the thoughts are equally applicable to other parts of the public sector.

I’m starting with the governance of data sharing – which can appear as a minefield of confusing terminology, guidelines and practices.  However taken one chunk at a time, and with some specialist advice – it’s not that hard!

At the core of data sharing governance is an agreement between two or more partners on how they will manage the sharing of data.  Linked to this agreement are areas that are specific to each organisation, i.e. the organisation’s management of its data security and general information governance.

The agreement

image of a scrabble board
Figure 1: Data sharing acronym “scrabble”

The standard way to document a data sharing agreement is by means of an Information Sharing Protocol or Agreement (ISP or ISA), which documents the who, why, where, when, what and how of the sharing.

There are a number of popular ISP frameworks available, for example, see the SASPI, WASPI and ICO web sites (links are given below).  The available templates and guidance gets the ISP process off to a quick start, and help partners develop a common understanding.  A recognised template should also help ensure that the legal aspects of the ISP are properly addressed.

When producing an ISP it’s important to remember to:

  • Keep it simple. Would a front-line practitioner understands it?  An ISP needs to clearly communicate the essential elements of the data sharing to all involved people, e.g. internal employees as well as external stakeholders (or a similar test – would my husband/wife/partner understand this?  – assuming you can persuade them to read it!)
  • Keep it standard. As detailed above, using an existing template helps to reach an agreement and avoids the pain of re-inventing the wheel
  • Start the process early. An ISP should not be a last minute afterthought, and there are dependencies with the parallel design of the technical solution for sharing and storage, and the assessment of information risks
  • Manage the process. One partner organisation should co-ordinate the development of the ISP, with designated ISP Coordinators appointed as primary points of contact in every organisation involved
  • Integrate with data security. The ISP must document how security controls are applied to the data that is being shared.  This should integrate with a Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) that identifies the risks to the data, and how they will be managed
  • Make the sign-off easy. There’s always a risk that too many stakeholders in the sharing organisations become involved in the review and agreement process, which then grinds to a halt.  Numbers at the party should be kept to a minimum, and where several partners are involved, multiple bilateral flavours of the ISP should be avoided.  Variety will not spice up your life!
  • Communicate it. Publish it widely within your organisation (e.g. on intranets), with partners (consider a shared portal/intranet) and externally (on your web site, and on a national register, e.g. WASPI)
  • Keep it up-to-date. Factors such as business practices, technologies and the data shared will change over time so there needs to be a process in place to ensure the ISP reflects these changes, and does not get lonely on a shelf
  • Keep the benefits of sharing in mind. An ISP is a means to achieve benefits for the child, vulnerable adult etc

But don’t forget…

ISPs don’t exist in a vacuum and there are key areas where they integrate with the management of data in the rest of the organisation, in particular:

  • With the wider arrangements for information governance, for example Information Assurance Committees
  • With established data management roles, for example the Caldicott Guardian in the NHS or Data Protection Officers
  • With existing policies, for example an Information Governance Strategy, Data Security Policy, etc (but avoiding duplication with the ISP)

The sharing of personal data is a sensitive topic and some citizens will always be wary despite appreciating that it can simplify the experience of dealing with multiple public service organisations and support the delivery of integrated and enhanced standards of care.

Setting up a good ISP means that public bodies can confidently share data with successful outcomes.  An ISP provides a foundation that allows organisations to focus on the twin challenges of data security and the routing and matching of data between partners.

This has just been a quick overview – theses sites give some excellent and detailed guidance, templates and examples:

Next time – the ins and outs of data matching and routing.

If you have any comments, leave a reply below or contact me by email.

Why gaining real insight into user needs is the key to great service design and delivery

If government is to deliver better services with less money, it needs to meet the public on their terms, offering services which users recognise as being for them, and accessible to them. Civil servants must put user needs at the heart of digital (and non-digital) service design and delivery. They have to be outward looking and pursue a match between what the user needs and what government can provide.

bar chart
Figure 1: 61% of civil servants either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement that they had a good understanding of their typical service users or customers. Just 13% disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement. Source: Sopra Steria and DODS Civil Service survey, 2015

In our Digital Trends Survey, undertaken earlier this year, we asked civil servants to assess how ready they are to deliver user-focused digital services. The good news is that government has come a long way since the days when ‘take it or leave it’ service delivery was commonplace. A majority of civil servants (66%) said they had a good understanding of their typical service users.

However understanding is not the same as insight

Insight is about developing a ‘deep truth’ about the user based on their behaviour, experiences, beliefs and needs, and then being able to bring about behavioural change. The survey results on user insight were mixed. While over half of civil servants said that they gathered information about service users, just 39% use custom data to help design services.

bar chart
Figure 2: 39% of civil servants either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement that they use custom behaviour data to help design our services. Source: Sopra Steria and DODS Civil Service survey, 2015

A lack of insight will be particularly significant when delivering services for users without the ability, skills, motivation or trust to go online. We found that a significant minority of civil servants (36%) said that their customers or service users lacked the ability to use online services.

Putting ourselves into the shoes of the user – a quick guide

We recognise that the civil service is at the beginning of a journey and there is a challenge in unearthing user insights. Our User Experience (UX) consultants, using a kit bag of methods and tools, are able to slip into the customer’s shoes and understand the individual user experience in context. Here are some simple rules that they apply every day, which can get you started on the road to achieving real user insights:

  1. Kick off with UX research: the requirements of the end user are made explicit from the start. Throughout the project the team challenges business requirement with user needs. In the process the likelihood of being able to generate a win-win solution is enhanced (and trade-offs are made explicit)
  2. Target key users: an understanding of user demographics – gender, age, socio-economic group and lifestyle factors – must inform project design. Resources need allocating to desk research, user surveys, ethnography, focus groups
  3. Understand the context: there is no short-cut to meeting users and watching how they interact with a system or service on their turf. For example, we can consider the design needs of a community worker using a mobile application in their office, working with teachers in a school or with young parents in a Children’s Centre
  4. Accessible design is good design: users might not have a choice in interacting with a government service. So the relentless focus on user needs must address accessibility. This starts with an improvement in the quality of written content and extends to addressing issues of access, skills, motivation, trust and disability. Accessibility must never be an afterthought
  5. Capture and communicate what you learn: journeys mapping is a vital tool in revealing user behaviour and the end-to-end experience of accessing services. It will reveal important intersections and hand-offs between organisations and services. It allows the UX team to visualize a compelling story that creates empathy and understanding

Our experience shows that simple observation and engagement will challenge assumptions. It provides the rich insight needed to create something that both delights and engages the user. And the process never ends – iterative testing and updating of service designs based on feedback is best practice.

Your thoughts

Are you working on a digital transformation programme in government? Or working on a project that depends on putting user needs at the heart of policy-making or service delivery? Tell us what you think in the discussion thread below.

More about the Digital Trends Survey

In previous posts we’ve highlighted other issues raised in the survey including the setting of robust and relevant measures of success and digital skills. The full survey report ‘2015 Digital Trends Survey‘ is also available. And we’ll repeat the digital trends survey at regular intervals to track the progress of the civil service as it seeks to meet the ambitious commitments made in the Civil Service Reform Plan.

Measuring the success of digital transformation

The Civil Servants’ view

There is no lack of guidance for civil servants. For example there is the HM Treasury guidance on production and approval of business cases, the Magenta Book guidance on evaluation and the Cabinet Office spending controls on digital and IT. Recognising that the requirements of a digital project can change rapidly, as user needs are understood, HM Treasury and the Government Digital Service released supplementary guidance on Agile project approval processes.

But what happens in the real world when legacy government appraisal methods meet the reality of delivering digital projects with an agile mindset?

How confident are civil servants that they can define what success looks like?

In our Digital Trends Survey undertaken earlier this year, we set out to understand how civil servants view the progress of digital transformation within the civil service. Many responses highlighted the benefits associated with digital transformation, including efficiencies through channel shift and enhanced user satisfaction. But nearly half of the respondents had failed to gather the customer information that is so vital for monitoring and evaluation. Others pointed to deficiencies in the identification of Key Performance Indicators, as it was difficult to lock down system requirements at the start and manage delivery against a pre-determined timetable.

Many civil servants – including three at the very top of the service – reported that there was no measure of success for the progress of digital transformation

No measure of success… take a minute to let that sink in.

Can Agile and government project assurance work together?

Yes. Our experience is that good governance in agile can empower teams to follow programme management methodologies as they were intended to be used. Examples include regular project boards comprising client senior managers and stakeholders as well as project managers to review progress and provide solutions to any issues and ensure resources are available. This is recognised in the guidance on Agile highlighted above, which suggests that civil servants need to rely more on observation and engagement within the team and with stakeholders, rather than paper-based reporting and document review.

But in many cases even the best guidance and a strong central mandate will not be sufficient to catalyse the adoption of robust business cases and agile implementation methods. Digital leaders have a key role in promoting the advantages of a business case that contains empirical evidence and clear targets for improvement. They must emphasise that failure to consider monitoring and evaluation early enough can severely limit those options and the reliability of any evidence of impact. And incentives have to be put in place, with guidance on the level of detail required at each stage depending on the scale or complexity of the project. For example the HM Treasury ‘Five Case Model’ provides several excellent templates, but more training is need to understand the methods.

Moving from process improvement to measuring outcomes

Methods for gauging success in agile delivery in government are still rare. However better impact monitoring is critical. Large-scale implementation of digital solutions, and the business re-organisation that accompanies it, requires up-front investment. The benefits of digitization will take time and be felt outside the organisations that bear the costs of delivery (including in health and social care and across the criminal justice system).

Impact monitoring and business case methodologies will have to be developed that provide a comprehensive calculation of the various costs, benefits (including cashable savings) and beneficiaries. Or that illustrate more general benefits for society or individuals, even if these benefits cannot immediately be expressed in quantitative terms. Otherwise, implementation of projects will falter on the resistance of institutions to contribute to the costs of delivery or give up existing benefits (e.g. revenue streams from the provision of public sector information).

We’ll repeat the digital trends survey next year to understand if civil servants are coming to terms with the need to measure digital outcomes. And in future blogs I’ll be highlighting the type of cost savings, efficiency gains and quality improvements that can be achieved through digital and technology projects and how they can be measured.

In the meantime I’d be interested in your views on how to successfully define success and monitor the progress of digital projects, so why not leave a comment below or contact me by email.

More About the Digital Trends Survey

We commissioned Dods – a leading parliamentary communications organisation – to survey civil servants in Central Government and capture their views around the Digital Transformation agenda, the impact it’s had on them and the services provided to citizens. We had a fantastic response rate of 2,374 across all grades and Government departments. You can read more about the survey on our website. And you can read more about the digital skills gap that civil servants highlighted in our survey, and the implications for the civil service, in my last blog.

Why I signed the Digital Inclusion Charter

Like so many others, I spent most of my commute this morning in the digital world – powered by the smartphone technology in my hand and the invisible tendrils of communication in the air all around us.

As I left the house, I remembered my still snoozing son was collecting an award at his school this morning so sent him a message of support and a request for excited updates later in the day.  A quick check of the transport network showed my train was on time, but I was not – so I picked up my walking pace to ensure I didn’t miss it.  Once on the train, a reminder prompted me to pay an outstanding bill – a few clicks, then done.  Leaving time to review my diary for the day, coordinate a weekend outing with a few friends via Facebook (clearly I’m getting old) and manage a quick scan of various  news-feeds all before the train pulled into London.  Whilst walking to catch my usual bus, my Fitbit app pings me – I am close to hitting my weekly step target but need to push – so I ditch the bus and decide to walk to the office instead!

Many of us will have our own variations on this kind of journey – each with different apps, activities and platforms supporting the engagements we choose – but all with the common thread that being ‘being connected’ is now a ubiquitous part of our daily lives.

Being connected feels great…

Being connected feels like the future…

Being connected empowers us to make more efficient use of our time and more informed choices…

… and of course it now drives our expectations.  When our retailers began offering online services, we expected our banks to.  And when they did, why not our insurers, our healthcare providers, our travel agents,  our schools?  Now we expect it everywhere, including our Public Services.

Millions of people interact with government every year. We pay our taxes and apply for tax credits. We look for jobs and make benefit claims. We need passports and driving licenses. Last year over 1.7 billion government transactions were completed at a cost of £7.1 billion and over three quarters of those transactions were completed online.

This is great news for those who are connected… BUT there are over 7 million adults in the UK who are not. Over 7 million adults defined as digitally excluded, primarily because of a lack of access to the internet.

7 million people. That’s why we’ve signed the Government’s Digital Inclusion Charter

There are digitally excluded people within all communities of the UK but older people and those that are economically disadvantaged are more likely to be so.  There are also 11 million adults in the UK who need some assistance to interact with government online.

The implications for government are enormous.  The estimated benefit to the UK economy of getting one million new people online (assuming 70% become regular internet users) is £1.5 billion. If we enabled the digitally excluded to change just one of the interactions that they have with government from a face-to-face or paper interaction to an online interaction the government would save £900 million a year.

The implications for society are equally significant.  Every consumer who is online saves on average £560 a year by shopping around and looking at deals.  The poorest families could save over £300 if they were online[4]. Children who do not have access to the internet are at a disadvantage – over a million children’s exam results will be on average a grade lower than their peers every year because they do not have internet access at home.

Severe implications. That’s why we’ve signed the Government’s Digital Inclusion Charter

In our day jobs at Sopra Steria we deliver technology and business services across the public sector trying to help government make all our lives better and safer.  Across both public and private sector,  we have great staff with valuable digital skills and an in-depth understanding of the needs of their many users in many walks of life. Underpinning that, sustainability has been a core part of our ethos in Sopra Steria for many years.

  • We actively support local communities with initiatives including working with local schools to support their technology education programmes, encouraging girls to consider careers in IT,  offering technology and business apprenticeships to local young people, supporting communities and charities through our annual Community Matters activities, and in India, helping improve the lives of over 66,000 children by giving them access to education – including IT education
  • We’ve cut our carbon emissions by 48% in 6 years, made all our Datacentre services CarbonNeutral® by default since 2013 and scored a perfect score of 100A in CDP Climate Change in both 2013 and 2014 – joining the CDP’s  ‘A List Report’ as a result
  • We are also an active member and sponsor of Digital Leaders in the UK and work with that community looking at all aspects of the Digital Transformation agenda including the challenges of digital exclusion

All of our experiences and initiatives have shown us the real difference people can make when they work together – the digital inclusion challenge cannot be solved by any single person or organisation alone, but I believe it can be solved by many people and organisations working together…

We must fix it together. That’s why we’ve signed the Government’s Digital Inclusion Charter

Are you signing the Digital Inclusion Charter? Leave a message below or contact me by email.