Having inconsistent and duplicate customer data is damaging enough in business, but in local government it can have a serious impact on citizens’ lives.
Until five years ago, citizen records at the London Borough of Brent were siloed across 12 different databases, one for each of the council’s functional divisions. Every division had its own separate copy of resident data, and each one was incomplete or incorrect in some way. The council’s two separate customer relationship management systems also had different resident data sets, each with its own particular faults and omissions.
This situation meant that while one department might know that a resident was blind, and therefore required special services, the others might still treat them like any other. It also made the council’s clerical processes inefficient, as employees would spend much of their time calling other departments to find out supplementary information.
The council’s solution was to build the Brent Client Index, a system that aggregates the 1.5 million customer records held in the council’s 12 data silos to create a central, ‘virtual’ registry.
Deployed in 2008, the Index is based on master data management technology from Initiate, a US-based vendor that was acquired by IBM last year. It works by statistically analysing the contents of multiple databases, resolving conflicts by comparing data from the same field across multiple datasets. This master data can be accessed directly, or it can then fed back into business systems such as CRM applications.
The Index has proved a hit with users. ““When we started out, we envisaged about 30 users of the systems,” says Raj Seedher, Brent’s Information Governance Manager. “Now there are 300 users throughout the council."
Not only has it improved the quality and consistency of citizen data, the Index has also promoted information sharing within the council by making data more accessible and more reliable.
This has lead to a number of positive outcomes. For example. when noise control officers are called out to a disturbance, they can now check the data to see if they might be walking into a dangerous or sensitive situation. Searches for missing persons are easier when family names are formalised in the database. And fraud control officers have new cross-checking tools at their disposal, which have helped Brent save £1.2 million in Single Person Discount fraud.
Work in progress
Building the Index has not resolved all data-related issues, however, and Brent Council is still working to develop its data governance processes.
“We’re now concentrating now on a system called CAR (change, accept or reject) which is a system to handle changes of circumstance,” explains Seeder. Every year, there is a change of circumstance at 30% of the 90,000 households in the borough that means data must be updated.
"You can imagine that a lot of people are working on either inaccurate information or spending a great deal of time bringing information up to date," Seedher says. "We’re looking at setting up a network of data stewards in the service areas to start cleaning up data based on notifications and discrepancies that we pick up."
Beyond that, Seedher envisages that data sharing might one day become so easy and intelligent that the council can take a proactive, as opposed to reactive, approach to providing services.
“If you have a disability, we could proactively think about providing services around that. If you’ve got cars and you’re moving to a residential area where there’s parking permits, we could look at providing permits proactively,” Seedher says. “That’s the vision, but I guess we’re some way from that.”