How Scotland's public sector pulled together to fight Covid through data

Covid-19 marked a fundamental shift in how real-time statistical information was discussed, shared and interpreted on a daily basis – and analysed for ­relevance by people who had shown little or no interest in data before.

Picture: Shutterstock
Picture: Shutterstock

“There is something quite powerful in the ability of any citizen to go online and see updated data on cases, fatalities and much more, for anywhere in the world,” says Professor Shannon Vallor, Baillie Gifford Chair in the Ethics of Data and AI at the University of Edinburgh.

“We have seen epidemiological modelling for many past outbreaks, but this is the first time the public was able to access data in such a usable form.”

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Gillian Docherty, chief executive of Edinburgh-based innovation centre The Data Lab, agrees: “Every day, we were told, ‘We’re analysing the data, looking at the evidence – that’s informing what we are doing’. That’s been a fundamental change.”

So, how well geared up was Scotland in understanding the data, sharing it across different public bodies and analysing it at high speed to inform life-or-death decisions?

Docherty has been impressed. She says: “I’ve been involved with the public sector for more than a decade and never seen the level of co-operation I’ve seen over the last five months. There has been a can-do attitude, a real willingness to support each other – and this includes handling, sharing and analysing data.

“If you had an important data review, you might have been doing it every three months; during the pandemic, it was, ‘OK, we’ll do that tomorrow’. The public sector proved it could move at speed to do what needed to be done while respecting governance and public privacy – and without ripping up the rule book. That’s really positive.”

Jason Leitch, a public face of the pandemic as Scotland’s National Clinical Director, says: “The pace and scale of development has been unprecedented. Data has played a critical role throughout the stages of the pandemic and been vital to modelling the potential impacts on demand for health and other services, to ensure they have sufficient capacity to respond to the surge in infection. It has also been used to inform the actions required to minimise impact and keep people safe.”

Dr Kenneth Meechan, head of information and data protection officer at Glasgow City Council, reports a similar picture. He says: “We have learned we can move really fast if we have to. At very short notice, there was a raft of data sharing with the NHS and other agencies that local authorities did not normally share data with, ­organising food and medical deliveries for people who were shielding and identifying those with social and financial vulnerabilities.”

Despite challenges around privacy and data-sharing agreements between public bodies, Meechan maintains pragmatism prevailed with lives at risk. He says: “There was an element of necessity and a light touch in terms of governance in a crisis situation; sometimes you had to go ahead and complete data protection assessments later.

“No-one would have thanked me for saying that shielding didn’t start because we were waiting for technical paperwork to be signed.”

However, Meechan, also chair of a SOLAR group of Scottish councils’ lawyers on data protection and related issues, stresses: “Just because you’re in a crisis, you don’t throw out fundamental safeguards or violate anyone’s rights. We were conscious where we had to relax normal controls and tracked what we did – and why. We’ll examine that and ask questions.”

He says that lessons learned include working with the NHS to look at a “heat map” of positive tests in the event of further outbreaks. “This is fundamental stuff about people’s health and lives. We are not using personal data for anything ­other than making important and quick decisions to protect vulnerable people.”

And he says amid the crisis there have been positive developments: “In the space of four months, we’ve pushed forward IT and data sharing in a way that would have taken at least 18 months normally.

“We have learned valuable lessons, like using social work data beside other data in the NHS Safe Haven. It’s ‘under the bonnet’ so not obviously visible, but researchers can use it to draw conclusions. Through SOLAR and other professional networks like the Local Government Digital Office, local authorities have been able to respond on a more collective basis rather than have our partner agencies negotiate 32 times over, which is better for everyone.”

However, the coronavirus crisis also identified areas where improvements are needed. Leitch says there is “much to learn in terms of how we use data in future”, and there was fierce criticism in the media of the discharging of patients who hadn’t been tested for Covid-19 from hospitals to care homes in the early stages of the pandemic.

One “could do better” issue is the fact that local authorities and other public bodies use a variety of

different platforms, which can make sharing data slower and clunkier than it should be.

Docherty says: “There is a big piece of work to do around common data standards and frameworks – it’s

easier to share data [both ethically and legally] between public

bodies when everything is aligned. The Scottish Government understands that and is well down the road in addressing it.”

Albert King, Scotland’s Chief Data Officer, says that real progress has been made before and during the pandemic, but accepts there are challenges, “because different

public services describe data in

different ways”.

He says this is being addressed by creating “contemporary, digital, platform-based business models”, set out in Scotland’s Digital Strategy.

“This is reflected in the approach we are taking to digital identity and payments. Adoption of common data standards and platforms reduces the cost and time of delivering digital products and ­services.”

To help speed up this digital journey, two taskforces were set up. One connected councils, the Scottish Government, NHS, police, enterprise agencies and others “to assemble data from across the public sector for analysis”, says King.

Research Data Scotland also announced a new taskforce in May, chaired by Chief Statistician Roger Halliday.

It brought together existing and emerging data resources, expertise, capabilities and key data sets – healthcare services, testing, care home residents, vulnerable groups and school pupils, as well as census data – to advise ministers making vital decisions around Covid-19.

King says that collaboration was highly significant in the early months of the pandemic: “Bringing together health and local government data was really important in enabling us to work together to identify and support people who were shielding.”

He also highlights Connecting Scotland, which supports thousands of vulnerable people (those on

low incomes and considered clinically at high risk) to get online to access services and connect with their friends and family during the pandemic.

King says: “Both examples meant co-operation between national and local government, health and social care and the voluntary sector, to understand who needed support and where.”