Digital skills in local authorities

Fabio Giunta, Digital & Data Associate at Energy Systems Catapult, explores how local authorities can tackle the lack of data and digital skills to move towards a low-carbon future

Over three quarters of local authorities have now declared a climate emergency, yet few have a clear plan in place for how to achieve their net zero target. However, one of the key steps that can put local authorities on the right track to net zero is not an innovative new low carbon technology but enabling effective access and analysis of local area data.    

Overall, there are three main areas where data systems can bring benefits to developing local energy projects. These are: stimulating next zero innovation: by sharing data with third parties, a local authority can unlock innovation and develop collaborative partnerships with skilled organisations within their local area; streamlining internal processes: energy projects will require inputs across multiple teams and decision-making layers within the local authority; and increasing citizen’s engagement: the creation of online portals helps citizens and businesses to access public services and information.

The following sections summarise the steps that a local authority should consider when thinking about improving their data and digital skills. These have been defined based on our experience and discussions with leading local authorities.

Align digital strategy and business objectives
Any digitalisation journey should start with creating a strategy that is aligned with the key objectives of a decarbonisation plan. Then, highlighting the main positive outcomes brought by improved digital and data systems will guarantee the buy-in of senior management. This will ensure that the data teams will have the relevant resources and that there will be coherency across teams.

An example of the importance of such a top-down approach is the necessity for data consistency across the organisation. If different departments utilise different systems, tools, or even programming languages, the inconsistency between models developed and metrics used by different teams would create barriers to sharing information internally.

Create data use cases
Data use cases are short descriptions of the data needs of a certain stakeholder which highlight what are their goals, what activities need to be undertaken to reach those goals, and what data is needed for those activities. By creating a data use case, any organisation can understand the value of data for the potential users and identify the datasets to be prioritised for collection and analysis. Moreover, not all the use cases will be equally feasible, therefore, creating several of them helps to find the low hanging fruits that will bring the greatest value in the quickest time.  

An example of data use case is a local authority (stakeholder) that is willing to plan the deployment of electric vehicles charging infrastructure (activity) in order to reduce transport-related emissions in a specific region (objective) and the data that is required for this activity is:

Once the data needs have been identified, it is possible to point out challenges such as the difficulty of accessing low voltage electricity network topology, or the difficulty of gathering all the data from such a variety of sources.

Procure the essential skills and expertise
A common mistake is to think that data scientists are the only professionals needed to start using energy data to accelerate the transition to net-zero. The reality is that a broad range of digital and data expertise  is necessary and these should be prioritised based on the selected data use cases. However, regardless of the specific expertise, there are some skill families that are essential for using data efficiently and sustainably.

1. Data engineering
To move from proof-of-concept into operation, any digitalisation initiative needs to be supported by an appropriate data architecture that considers the needs of data scientists, developers, software engineers, and less technical users. Data Engineers suggest what data is collected, how it is collected, where it is stored, how it is queried, and how this whole process is integrated with the existing system. Data Engineers or dedicated Solution Architects should be involved early in a project’s life to identify how it can be sustainably designed and supported by
the organisation.

2. Data governance
The ability of local authorities to share energy-related data with innovators is an important enabler of the energy transition. Indeed, local authorities are facing an increasing amount of data sharing requests which often involve several departments. Data governance professionals  design and implement processes to efficiently handle these requests, facilitate the sharing of data and fulfil regulatory requirements.

3. Data insight
Data is not an end in itself but a means to an end. Insights need to be extracted from the raw data to unleash the most value. Data analytics professionals will perform this task relying on business intelligence tools, relatively simple codes, and powerful visualisation techniques. In addition to these, data scientists will extract insights using advanced statistics, machine learning techniques, and artificial intelligence. The complexity of the analyses required by the selected use cases will determine which of these two roles is preferable.

In general, it is beneficial to involve these personnel at the start of the project to validate and help to design any proposed solution. Data scientists and analyst need to collaborate with those who have specific domain knowledge in the field. This is essential to provide the ‘so what?’ and to ensure alignment with business objectives. Finally, it is important that any model, used for analysing data, is scrutinised to account for potential bias in the algorithm , clearly documenting the assumptions which were used. Data must be representative and transparent to ensure that the results and conclusions are ethically sound.

How to access these skills
Outsourcing tasks and activities is a common practice for many organisations. Regardless of how much is internally developed and how much is outsourced, local authorities need to be smart customers to avoid creating systems that will tie them to services from external parties. This means to upskill employees to build knowledge and skills across the key digital and data areas. Becoming a member of the local digital community will help this development, enabling the local authority to leverage local initiatives and to join forces with private organisations.

Funding these activities is another important challenge. Most local authorities can access government incentives for digital industry apprenticeships. Indeed, any organisation spending more than £3 million a year in payrolls can use the apprenticeship levy to fund the full cost through a training provider via the apprenticeships service.

In case an organisation is interested in collaborating with individuals with a strong academic background, fellowships are a viable option. This is particularly relevant in the case of local authorities who have already developed a data infrastructure and that are looking for data scientists able to implement advanced techniques such as machine learning. An example is a 12-weeks fellowship promoted by the Connected Place Catapult.

Case study – Data Mill North from the Leeds City Council
In 2014, the Leeds City Council (LCC) launched an online platform, Leeds Data Mill, to publish open data collected from multiple sources within the local area. The initial objective was to stimulate innovators and local businesses, to reuse the data that might lead to new and improved services, and conceive innovative solutions for some of the city’s challenges, including the climate emergency.

In seven years, Data Mill has helped the LCC to handle freedom of information requests, become a key member of the local digital community, and lay the foundations for tackling issues around standardisation and quality of service-related data. The success of the initiative has brought LCC to expand Data Mill to the whole region, re-branding it to Data Mill North.

Lessons learned in Leeds
Thomas Knowland, head of Sustainable Energy & Climate Change and Stephen Blackburn, Data and Innovation Manager for the LCC shared some important lessons learned:

  • It is important to join forces with local initiatives and groups. The close co-operation with organisations such as the Open Data Institute (ODI) Leeds has been a key factor in convening interested parties and stakeholders to work on projects and city challenges.
  • Focus your resources on the most promising use cases. This will maximise the engagement from the local businesses and will prioritise the data that will deliver the greatest impact.
  • Data governance aspects should be considered from the very beginning of a project, ensuring that the risk of publishing personal or commercially sensitive data is properly mitigated.
  • The data architecture needs to be designed in a way that publishing and updating data requires none or limited human intervention.
  • Specialists with domain knowledge should work together with data analysts to point out the insights to be generated, as well as the data quality requirements and granularity.
  • Even if several tasks of digital projects are outsourced, a local authority needs to be a smart customer. Therefore, project officers need to have a good understanding of digital skills and technologies.
  • Be mindful of data ethics and bias. This not only means adopting security best practices to prevent data breaches and privacy issues but also adopting data ethics principles to avoid incorrect, negative or discriminatory outcomes.

Improving digital and data systems capabilities is likely to achieve wider benefits than what was initially anticipated. However, this requires a well-defined strategy, led by the senior management, and a comprehensive set of skills brought into the project from the very beginning. There are initiatives and organisations that can support local authorities through this journey and signpost the key areas that need to be considered to maximise the benefits.

One of these is the Energy Systems Catapult, a non-for-profit independent organisation co-funded by Innovate UK. We are currently building a toolkit for local authorities to accelerate the development of local energy projects, providing guidelines, tools, case studies, and specialist knowledge. If you are seeking help to design your digitalisation journey and upskill your staff to use energy data to tackle climate challenges in your local area, contact us:

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