It’s Data Protection Day, so what more appropriate time to talk about how we use data in DIO? Recently DIO has sought to investigate how we can use our data to find ways to better support the Armed Forces. This has been done in numerous ways over the last few years, from the embedding of software to developing better data visualisation techniques. These practises draw on the expertise and resources that the government Good Practice team has produced. However, the question remains – what else can we do?
Are we providing information our customers want?
For me, we need to focus on providing strong key points, answering the ‘so what’ questions for our customers – the Army, Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and Strategic Command. The data we collect and maintain is enormously varied, ranging from the number of Service Family Accommodation homes currently occupied to the amount of land that MOD owns or has rights to within the UK. We need to ensure our points are easily available for users to digest – without having to search and dig through our outputs for them! Customers, especially younger technologically savvy users, are not interested in seeing large reference tables surrounded by heavy text. They also probably don’t want to scour a 50-page report for the information they’re looking for or high-level overviews. Of course, we do need to make sure this information is complete with methodology, footnotes and so on in order to remain as transparent as possible. But we also need to be better at pointing users to the key point – and do more to get our users’ attention in the first place.
We have addressed this is recent years by creating a new data storage facility to store historic data in one place in order to be one source of authoritative information. We have invested in new software to allow us to dig more deeply into our data and address business critical questions. It also provides our customers with predictive analysis rather than the traditional retrograde analysis. This allows customers to see areas where we need to focus their attention on such as quality of different assets across the estate and where money should be invested.
Can data visualisation techniques help?
Our goal is to turn data into information, but that is only half of the journey. The other half is to turn that information into insight. The wider Civil Service has produced masses of information over the past 5 years but there is always a risk it can be misused or misquoted. We need to build a trusting relationship with our users, both internal and external, so that they want to regularly engage and understand the information that we produce.
When news outlets such as The Guardian reproduce and repackage numbers, the general public are often quick to engage - just look at the comments section. This is just one example of an outside organisation using statistics and making them easy to understand and interact with, something we are striving to improve in DIO.
As a response to the need for information and data to be more accessible, DIO is becoming more proactive, training our staff in how to use and produce management information that we can dig deeper into with literally a click of a button. It is joined up with cross-departmental groups to establish what good looks like and then to implement it for users.
It’s fair to say that DIO has come a long way over the last five years. As a place to work it has been fascinating to see the range of innovative ideas teams have come up with when they are challenged to be creative. Feedback internally has been well received and information is being digested and implemented faster as a result. Stephen Few, who has written a number of books on data visualisation, said that: “numbers have an important story to tell. They rely on you to give them a voice.” DIO is giving numbers that voice to drive Defence forward to support the Armed Forces.