Unlocking the value of our information with data science

Darllenwch y dudalen hon yn Gymraeg

What is data science? I don’t think there is an agreed answer to exactly what it is – but using it we can provide knowledge and insights into almost any information. Many public sector organisations have been developing their data science capability and back in April the data science unit in the Welsh Government was established. This blog gives an introduction to the unit.

6 months ago the unit started with one person, me. Since then we have been building our team and now have 5 people, still small, but our work is already providing impact and insights. The data science unit is also supporting several data science apprentices based in teams across Welsh Government, and we have been helping other analysts develop and apply their data science skills. We have been identifying projects to work on and starting to understand how working with partners we can capitalise on the benefits of using data science in Wales. The ONS Data Science Campus just up the road has been a great source of advice for us and we’re grateful for their support in getting to this point.

The data science unit has three main aims

1. To undertake its own data science work

This is where most of our time has been spent during the last 6 months – supporting the COVID-19 analytical response and identifying projects to maximize the value of the information that Welsh Government holds.

One of the early areas that we became involved in was mobility – understanding how the citizens of Wales have changed their patterns of trips and movement in response to the pandemic and government lockdown restrictions. Apple, Facebook and Google have all made anonymised data available and the insights from those data are being used to help inform decision making for the pandemic. Today we are publicly releasing our code on GitHub so you can see what we have been producing. The code can generate the reports in both English and Welsh.

We have also started our first large project, working with colleagues in commercial and procurement to help them utilise the range of data they hold. For example looking at patterns of expenditure in the public sector in Wales – including forecasting, overlaying demographic data and time series analysis. This will help us better understand public sector spend, which is likely to result in savings. The project also has the potential to deliver economic benefits through the improved interpretation of spend data and economic data (such as employment)

2. To support and enhance data science capability across Welsh Government

The data science unit shouldn’t be the only part of Welsh Government that undertakes and uses data science. A number of other projects (such as free text analysis of our annual staff survey) have started outside of the unit which we are supporting. At the end of October we will also be running a number of data science taster sessions for analytical colleagues. Those sessions aim to upskill and enhance our analytical capability across the organisation.

3. To develop a ‘Wales data science partnership’

The unit will also be developing and establishing a Wales data science partnership by March 2021. Developing a clear vision for how we should use data science for public good; identifying opportunities for funding and investment; and moving towards the goal of being a nation at the cutting edge of advanced analytics will help to put Wales at the forefront of data driven innovation. In the coming months we will be talking to partners in the public sector, academia, the third sector and wider to help us shape what the partnership will look like. We will also be working with the Data Science Campus and the new Centre for Digital Public Services to consider how we can collaborate on raising capability across the public sector.

It’s not been easy to get to this point

These first 6 months have certainly been tricky. Having to stand up a new team remotely, establishing new ways of working and responding to urgent analytical questions has been challenging. We are starting to explore and showcase what we can do, demonstrating that data science can help us to understand our data far better enabling us to further support decision making in Welsh Government.

One of our biggest hurdles has been the tools and technology available to us since the Welsh Government has not had its own data science platform. We have been mostly using the UK Secure Research Platform (UKSeRP), but this is about to change. In the coming months we will have an internal secure environment that we can use alongside UKSeRP. This will have the right tools to really push our data to get the most out of it – helping to answer rapidly emerging questions and unlocking the value of our information.

This blog is only just the start of the Welsh Government’s data science journey. Over the coming months we will be providing regular updates on the work which we have been doing.

If you want to get in touch with us, especially with regards to the data science partnership then please contact us on datascienceunit@gov.wales.

John Morris, head of the data science and administrative data research unit

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