brum_mapWhy do you collect data from the people you work with? Is it just so you have a record of the people that have used your services? Do you do it because it’s one of the things you must do as part of the contract?

It’s a question we ask all the organisations we work with and usually the response is that it’s done because all organisations do it. One of the things we like to challenge an organisation with is the concept that the data that they collect has a wider social value. It can provide a much greater benefit than simply demonstrating that a service is complying with a contract.

The knowledge that organisations hold about the people they work with can provide a great deal of value for the wider community that those organisations exist in. Unlocking that value is an easy thing to do.
We’ve demonstrated this with our interactive map of health and wellbeing needs in Birmingham. It’s embedded below.

This map extracts data from a range of organisations we work with and shows the different issues that people have presented. All the organisations are aggregated together and anonymised down to post code sector. The visualisation has been put together using free software and took about an hour to make. It’s a simple process to hook the visualisation into live data and have a real-time picture of patterns of need for any area.

We’re not boasting about how easy something like this is to build. It’s a serious point to emphasise that the barrier to releasing the social value of data is not a software issue. If you focus on the IT then you are starting in the wrong place.

To get something like this to work you need three things in place.

1) A common definition of needs. We’ve created data dictionaries that list typical issues that clients present to services and use definitions taken from a range of outcome frameworks and national guidance. This means that when different services identify a client in financial hardship we know everyone means the same thing.

2) A whole person approach to assessment. When services first talk to clients they don’t just focus on those issues they might be able to resolve. This means advice agencies ask about smoking and exercise. Primary care asks about housing and employment. Understanding the full range of interdependent issues that individuals present to services increases the chances of helping people find help and support. This is not a new approach, it’s essentially Making Every Contact Count.

3) A willingness to integrate. By focusing on the individual, it changes the emphasis away from the needs of the service and towards a more proactive approach to working together. This is understandably difficult when services are often pitched against each other for scarce resources. A shared commitment to pool very basic data is one of the first steps in helping services to recognise they exist in an integrated system.

We think this approach, to extracting patterns of need, from very different services, should be a requirement from all commissioned services. It is this level of data that should be the foundation of every Joint Strategic Needs Assessment. Live data on need in communities will always be a more sound basis for commissioning services than national data sets. We also believe there is a strong case that success in addressing the needs, identified in areas, should be the test of whether a system is functioning.

Our involvement in this was to produce a standard definition of issues. We would obviously like people to use our definitions but agreeing a common format for data is one of the lowest barriers to developing live need data.

We would be happy to talk to anyone about how we bring data together.