Business intelligence has been around for over thirty years, evolving from the Decision Support Systems of the 1960s. It undoubtedly can and has provided huge benefits for private and public sector organisations, but these kinds of projects have often been limited to large centralised teams that have had the technology skills, resources and the budgets to implement traditional BI. This has meant that smaller organisations or departments have either been left behind, or ignored, often leading to a great deal of frustration.

The advent of cloud computing has made it easier and quicker to deploy BI. However, the challenge has been to get over some of the traditional thinking that organisations have still had around BI. In the UK public sector, this mindset is changing. The growth of the G-Cloud programme has made it easier for public sector bodies to evaluate and purchase cloud solutions. Alongside this, there is increasing interest in making access to data for analysis more open as well.

For BI projects where safe and secure access to data inevitably has to be considered, taking an agile or iterative approach to the roll-out can provide a good method to manage this process. As an example, Birst has completed the first phase of a project with the Skills Funding Agency (SFA), providing cloud BI and analytics to the agency to help in evaluating the success of funding into education services.

This first phase is aimed at internal users, but rather than being solely the preserve of the central team, Birst provides information in different forms to teams across the SFA. By providing these reporting and dashboard capabilities for the teams, they can take a more “self-serve” approach to using data. However, the data sources are still under the control and governance of the central team.

Looking forward, further phases will make data and analytics available in a secure fashion to third party organisations such as training companies and further education providers for them to see how they are performing. This is where keeping control over the data centrally is an important consideration. While these third parties can benefit from analytics, the agency will retain control over who can do what with the data, and ensure that everyone has access to accurate, consistent and high quality information.

Thinking ahead, public sector projects around data and analytics may reach out even further and provide access to data and analytics to everyone. This consideration of how “open data” projects may grow over time is an important one. For any UK public sector body, using cloud computing will be essential to meet this kind of requirement in a cost-effective, scalable and controlled manner.

There are some best practices that can be considered:

  • Keeping data secure and under control when going cloud – organisations can host their data in the Birst public cloud or use a secure cloud hosting partner to manage the infrastructure side. There is flexibility here and using the G-Cloud framework can help.
  • Data security is hugely important, whatever area of the public sector landscape you are involved in. This should be considered in the design phase right from the start.
  • Taking an “agile” approach to BI is a great idea in theory – turning it into practice involves maintaining control over the central data sources while also looking ahead at how problems or requirements are changing too. Without this control, it will lead to a more unstructured approach that won’t provide as much benefit back to the organisation. In order to take an agile approach forward, the BI and business teams have to work closely together to make sure that the data sources and the questions asked continue to be relevant to the public body.
  • Thinking about external audiences and use of data should also be considered. Areas like compliance and security are important when the data is going be used internally, but making information available to a wider citizen base adds more challenges, particularly around anonymisation and security.

For UK public sector organisations, BI offers new opportunities to improve efficiency and perhaps more importantly it can demonstrate where great work is already taking place.