Ellen Gayler explains how a team at West Sussex County Council took a unique approach to presenting local data in a clear, accessible way, helping decision makers at the council to understand at a glance where challenges and opportunities within West Sussex lie, and to make effective decisions accordingly.
Published in October 2016, West Sussex Life 2017-19 is the brainchild of the Insight and Intelligence Team at West Sussex County Council (WSCC), a small team of highly skilled analysts, data/information practitioners, and cartogram specialists. By comparing and contrasting statistics about West Sussex, the insight within this document helps explain some of the key issues arising in our communities, and raises questions about how we approach them in future.
Now in its fourth edition, West Sussex Life makes a wealth of data easy to understand and interpret, and is available for anyone to investigate, either online or in hard copy at libraries and schools.
Why West Sussex Life is essential
It’s well recognised that local government services are facing unprecedented challenges created by cuts and demographic changes. At the same time, the sheer amount of public data and information that is available to us all continues to grow at a vast rate.
Being able to understand what is happening in our communities and what might happen in the future, both regionally and nationally, is key in helping local government officers to make effective decisions and deal with these complex challenges.
Whilst much data/information is publicly available for anyone to interpret, the scale of it can create a time-consuming and confusing minefield, particularly for non-data/information practitioners. The result is internal analytical teams and information practitioners still receive lots of requests to provide and explain this same information time and time again.
To help address these challenges, the Insight and Intelligence Team created West Sussex Life (WSL).
A coffee table-style data book
WSL is an exciting, attractive and innovative coffee table-style data book that shines a light on what life is like for our communities, and what it could be like in the future. An accompanying online data repository, including the latest raw data used within the main book, allows anyone to explore and interrogate the figures.
In producing WSL, the Insight and Intelligence Team used a story-telling approach to data, visualising and drawing out key facts and figures for everyone to understand. The best and most appropriate openly available data has been brought together, as well as hidden internal data, telling a holistic story about what life is like for all who live, work and visit West Sussex.
Wherever possible, West Sussex data is compared with the national and regional trends, setting the context for understanding how our county is performing, and enabling readers to see where challenges and opportunities are.
Getting started: structure and data gathering
To structure the West Sussex story, and make it relevant to our members, directors and commissioners, the Insight and Intelligence Team divided WSL 2017-19 into sections based on the council’s main priority areas:
- about West Sussex
- giving children the best start in life
- championing the West Sussex economy
- promoting independence in later life.
Each section covers a variety of topics, from how our population will change in the next 15 years and how healthy people are in West Sussex, to educational attainment, how affordable it is to live here, and loneliness in our older residents. Insight is often broken down to district or ward level, creating an in-depth and rich understanding.
We met with colleagues throughout the council to obtain their latest operational internal data, plus succinct service commentary on:
- how challenges are being addressed
- how opportunities are being seized
- the overall context for the data and the council’s performance.
Services were delighted at being given the chance to showcase the important work they do. This approach also meant lots of teams within WSCC were made aware of WSL, and could see their data visualised in this way for the first time.
Public data sources were also probed, including the Office for National Statistics and various government departments, pulling together both historical and latest figures to illustrate trends within West Sussex, and how the council is currently performing.
The Insight and Intelligence Team developed this approach to the structure and data gathering over the last three editions of WSL, and it means the insight flows well in the document and key messages are consistent, which has been well received by readers:
‘There is so much to take in with West Sussex Life that the meaning could easily get lost but the structure of start of life, economic life and later life brings it all together into one flowing narrative.’
– Sophie Gregory, Chichester District Council
Design and infographics
Just as important as being quick and easy to understand, WSL also needed to be eye-catching and interesting to look at; we wanted everyone to enjoy flicking through WSL, whilst at the same time understanding at a glance what the data is telling them.
The Insight and Intelligence Team has been trained in using graphic design software, and these skills were utilised not only in bringing this disparate data together in a way that would make sense to a wide audience, but also in making the book attractive and enjoyable to explore.
And this has worked; we have received feedback from a wide range of people and organisations who are finding the insight within WSL useful, accessible, and visually appealing:
‘The West Sussex Life data is essential for anyone trying to offer services to the local community, be it businesses, education or health and wellbeing. The latest edition provides a wealth of useful information and the new format made it very accessible to anyone.’
– Shelagh Legrave OBE DL, Principal & Chief Executive Chichester College
‘Particularly remarkable [is] that West Sussex have streamlined their information so it can be presented and understood quickly. They seem to have done this by picking out the key data stories that need to be heard. This is a challenge that anyone who works with data will battle with, the balance between speed of delivery and true understanding of very complex techniques.’
– Sharlotte Hughes, Portsmouth City Council
Wherever possible, data was put into infographics, charts or maps that provided key messages in an eye-catching format. Icons were used to signpost readers to key pieces of data, and a bespoke logo was created that led to a unique and strong branding. Furthermore, the entire tool was put together within a specific design scheme, from the same font, to specific colours and sizes.
This has resulted in a professional, readable and authoritative document, the impact of which has seen the book being made very visible by the Leader and Chief Executive of WSCC, both of whom keep a copy on their desks and have provided copies to new directors, members, and their counterparts in neighbouring district and borough councils.
Clear aims and plans
Such a complex project would not have been successful without a strong project manager, and underpinning all of this work was a strong project-management approach. There were three main parts to this approach:
1 From the start, the team was clear about what WSL 2017-19’s aims and objectives were, and what benefits would be realised through its production. These influenced the direction of the tool throughout its creation, demonstrated why we were producing the tool, and helped ensure the team didn’t fall off track.
2 Having a comprehensive project plan, covering communication/engagement, design, production, and dependencies, helped us keep track of what activities needed to happen and when, and identify in advance potential risks. As the work progressed, we held project review sessions to ensure the team were aware of progress, outstanding work, and areas of risk.
3 We had a very comprehensive workplan that was the team’s bible during WSL’s production. This listed all of the topics that would be included, sources, and progress against each topic. Not only was this invaluable in keeping track of progress during the project, it also means we have a strong foundation for future updates and editions of WSL.
PR, communication and engagement
Good PR has been key in ensuring WSL 2017-19 is widely publicised and disseminated. A strong and consistent communication and engagement plan was deployed, which resulted in a large amount of local press coverage as the book was launched, helping to promote it more widely.
Our PR approach involved working closely with colleagues from WSCC’s Communications Team, sending out regular brief messages to council staff and members about what we were producing and why, which escalated as we reached the official launch date.
An article was published in the council’s Connections magazine, which is distributed to all households within West Sussex, and we had posters created and distributed in all of West Sussex’s libraries promoting the book.
To garner additional PR and buzz when the book was published, we organised a fun, interactive launch event. Invites were sent to a wide range of internal and external readers, from County Council Members and officers, to neighbouring local authorities, education establishments, local business representatives, and the local press. The impact of this was lots of organisations and individuals were made aware of WSL in one fell swoop, plus they had an opportunity to explore the newly-published tool, find out how to use it, and ask the team any questions.
Our hard work in developing a strong communications and engagement plan has paid off; in the six months since it was published, WSL 2017-19 has been viewed online over 3,000 times. We have received positive feedback from schools about how useful they are finding WSL in teaching students about the county:
‘It is an incredibly rich resource for the college to use in the planning, monitoring and review of our provision for our students and the wider community and I couldn’t praise it more highly and have shared it with all the staff, governors and students here at the college.’
– Paul Riley, Principal Worthing College
We also know that WSL is being used outside of local government, with voluntary organisations, such as the innovative Dementia Support Hub in West Sussex, and consultants working on developing the Chichester Southern Gateway regeneration proposition, using the book extensively to help make their case or provide evidence for fundraising bids.
In WSL, the Insight and Intelligence Team has presented decision makers and commissioners with clear and accessible insight, enabling them to understand at a glance where challenges and opportunities within West Sussex lie and make effective decisions accordingly.
Within the county council, WSL has delivered insight that is driving decision-making and is improving the council’s services; managers and decision makers at the council are using WSL to inform their business plans for the year ahead. And as we have seen, organisations outside of the County Council are using the book in various ways.
When the Insight and Intelligence Team first produced WSL, we were taking a leap into the unknown, but bringing together an in-depth analysis of a wealth of data and information in such an engaging and visual way, telling the story of what life is like in West Sussex at a glance, has made WSL a resounding success.
We believe this insight approach is something that other local authorities should consider to help them cope with the unprecedented challenges we all face, and make sense of what has and could happen in their communities.
This article was originally published in CILIP Update Magazine, September 2017.
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