The WMCA today issued a Request for Proposals (Access tender documents here) to help us develop a West Midlands Datastore. This was a key element of our Digital Roadmap and builds on the work of our Office for Data Analytics and Transport for the West Midlands Data Insights team. In this blog, Adam Hawksbee and Rebecca Riley outline the challenges we’re looking to address and the opportunities we see.
We can do more with our data
Numerous commentators have highlighted how the UK’s experience with Covid revealed the promises and pitfalls of our data infrastructure. Where there has been investment in data, particularly in public health, local government and partners have been able to effectively identify individuals in need of support and target programmes. In areas where data infrastructure is less well developed and data sharing less common, things have been more difficult– particularly around business data, which has got in the way of councils getting support grants to firms that desperately need it.
As we move from response to recovery, more challenges emerge. The net-zero agenda is a top priority, yet practical steps are held back by disconnected data. For example, creating a spine of Electric Vehicle charging points means mapping available energy grid connections, traffic flows, planning data, and consumer data on willingness to pay. Without pulling together this information, we can’t give confidence to private investors and market failure occurs.
Recent changes to the Green Book and the new need to have place-based analysis in business cases could unlock more investment outside of London and the South East, but clear and reliable data on potential benefits will be required. None of this is possible without greater capacity and capability around data sitting outside Whitehall.
Knitting together capacity across the West Midlands
The West Midlands already has significant strengths in this space. West Midlands Police were one of the earliest movers on using data to transform their work and lead national conversations on AI ethics. The region hosts 2 Health Data Research Hubs at University Hospitals Birmingham on Acute Care (PIONEER) and Eye Care (INSIGHT). Local Authorities are investing in more integrated data systems, including Coventry City Council who are developing an integrated data hub. All 6 of our Universities have strengths relating to data, including Cybersecurity (Wolverhampton), energy systems (Birmingham), and manufacturing supply chains (Warwick).
Through the West Midlands Regional Economic Development Institute partnership (WM REDI) we also have a strong regional data analytic capacity. This has been deployed effectively in the past year, supporting our annual State of the Region report and weekly Covid monitors. Yet this analytic capacity is restrained by the disconnected nature of data across the region, meaning we too often rely on lagged data from ONS or Whitehall departments.
So – our challenge is to knit together the pockets of excellence across the region and give our data analysts more effective information to draw insights from.
To make sure we ground our work in concrete challenges, we want to focus initially on the two interrelated areas of reaching net-zero and economic recovery. In both areas, we have existing partnerships that could act as a centre of gravity for a Datastore.
On net zero, we are looking to link datasets that could help us develop, target, and evaluate policy to help us reach our 2041 net-zero target – relevant data could include private and public emissions, utilities rollout and repair (particularly energy and fibre), planning, transport, public health, and supply/demand in key parts of the economy (e.g. domestic heat pumps, retrofit firms). Here we can build out from the platforms created by the Transport for the West Midlands Data Insights team, who have well-developed work on the transport elements of reaching net zero.
On economic recovery, we are looking to link datasets to understand the shape and strength of our post-Covid growth, and where we should target support and interventions. We are particularly keen to connect business-level data across the region to help us understand emerging clusters, growth opportunities, changes to working patterns and skills needs. We also want to link economic data to population-level data on income, health, travel and welfare, to understand how we can support inclusive growth.
The WM Datastore – a first step
The piece of work we are embarking on comes in three key parts.
First, we want a more granular understanding of what data infrastructure we have in the region that we can build from. These might be platforms and systems that have been adopted that could be knitted together or agreements and frameworks that are already in place. This capacity mapping is to make sure that before we move forward, we understand what’s already working and what isn’t across the region.
Next, we are looking for a proposal about how we can best move forward with a WM Datastore. What we have in mind is more like the London Datastore 3.0, which acts as a registry and provides shared frameworks/agreements, as opposed to a full data lake or data hub approach. But – we are open to suggestions on how we can get the balance right between pragmatism and transformation. The key here will be seeing a Datastore as a step to improve regional culture around data sharing, not as an end in itself.
Finally, we want our partner to build a prototype of the chosen option for the Datastore and develop the investment case. The prototype needs to be something that works for addressing a small portion of our challenges, and helps leaders in the region and nationally understand the value of building further capacity.
We’re adopting this phased approach because the region needs a partner who is willing to roll their sleeves up and get involved in the relationships and the detail. Although this opportunity is for the initial development phase, there is a chance to become partners in something much bigger. If you’re interested in working with us, please complete the Request for Proposals or reach out to us for more information.
This blog was written by Adam Hawsbee, Head of Policy and Programme Development at West Midlands Combined Authority and Rebecca Riley, Rebecca Riley, Business Development Director, City-REDI / WM REDI, University of Birmingham and the Head of Research and Office for Data Analytics (ODA) at West Midlands Combined Authority.
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI or the University of Birmingham.