Less churning, more learning: How data science transformed services in Southend-on-Sea
Tom Dowler of Southend-on-Sea Borough Council explains how data science helped provide better services and positively impact the lives of local residents.
At Social Finance we are passionate about the potential for data to improve public services. We are delighted to share the experience and insights of Tom Dowler, Manager of the Operational Performance and Intelligence team at Southend-on-Sea Borough Council, who have pioneered the use of data science in a council setting.
Interview conducted by Celine Gross, Associate at Social Finance.
Celine Gross: You left the private sector to join Southend-on-Sea Borough Council. Why did you make this decision?
Tom Dowler: I started my career as an analyst in investment banking. After almost 10 years working with some amazing people in the City of London, it didn’t feel right anymore: I had less of an interest in making money, and I wanted to pursue a career with a social impact.
I left my job at Lehman Brothers in 2008 and found a performance role at Southend-on-Sea council. The job was relatively junior but enabled me to use my data skills to serve the community… This made me happy!
CG: Talk to me about why you decided to use data science to transform your team, and how you did it.
TD: When I started working at Southend-on-Sea, I was immediately struck by the amount of work done manually. Getting data from standard template reports or bespoke requests of the IT team would take time to turn around. Then we would conduct simple analysis on Excel, and the whole process would take weeks — by the time the analysis was ready, it was too late or other priorities had come up.
I knew from my experience in the private sector that we could create significant efficiencies by automating our work. I was convinced that if I could get people to see the time and money they could save, it would be a no-brainer. It happened progressively, one change at a time. I was very lucky to have the support of my managers and senior leaders the whole time.
We started with Excel. I showed how to automate our analyses with VBA [Visual Basic for Applications, Excel’s programming language] and we were allowed to train the whole team to do that. It created a lot of excitement across our team and senior leadership: we were working more efficiently, taking more workload and feeling more robust in our approach to data.
Then, we started recruiting staff with SQL [Structured Query Language] skills. We were able to send SQL queries directly to the IT team (who owned the data), and eventually we were granted direct access to the database to do our own queries. We became excellent at extracting data and conducting analysis in Excel, but we wanted to go further and do more impactful analysis.
After some research, I discovered the programming languages Python and R. We hired someone who knew R, and he quickly trained a few team members. We were able to do more elaborate analysis to understand where our services needed improvement and how we could support better outcomes for our citizens.
It’s been four years since we started programming, and we haven’t looked back!
CG: What are the benefits data science has brought to the team?
TD: If I had to only choose three benefits, I’d say:
Timeliness of data: using live data enables us to create analysis that is 100% up to date. This makes a significant difference for service managers using our data: they know they can trust it and that it will support them to make better, impactful decisions.
Better decision-making: timely data and engaging analysis has transformed how our leadership and partners engage with the data. They have constructive decisions based on the insights given by our analysis, and they’ve been able to make better informed decisions.
Efficiency: our analysis is reproducible and runs quickly, so we’re able to leverage it in multiple areas with little effort.
CG: Tell us about a piece of data science you’re particularly proud of.
TD: We created smartsouthend.org. It’s an online platform with datasets, tools and analysis open to everyone: leadership, colleagues and citizens.
We decided to build SmartSouthend when we realised that people did not use data to inform their choices. I believe that this was due to them not being able to access data easily, and when they could access it, it being difficult to interpret. This is what SmartSouthend aims to achieve: to make data more easily accessible and communicate it in a way that can be understood by a wider audience.
We’re in the process of reviewing how SmartSouthend has concretely impacted people’s lives, and we are getting very positive feedback!
CG: What is your advice to councils hesitant to invest in data science?
TD: Be brave! It can feel like a difficult environment, but if you persist, you will get there. The dramatic change that you can make with data science on citizen’s lives is worth it.
My team and I are happy to share our experience to help other councils. I am also on the Panel of the Children’s Services Data Science Apprenticeship, an initiative to upskill children’s services analysts in data science. They are recruiting their first cohort now, so this could be a good option to train your team.