The vision is becoming a reality – the long and winding journey continues

Today’s guest blog comes from Tony Bracey from the Joint Emergency Services Group (JESG) Wales, and talks about the achievements and challenges around using a single, accurate and sustainable property dataset as the basis for information exchange across the public sector. 


Recently whilst preparing for the GeoPlace National Conference, I recalled a meeting back in 2011, with colleagues gallantly trying to persuade a number of us ‘civil servants’ that using the unique property reference number (UPRN) was the best possible way to achieve consistency across local government information sets and how it could be useful more widely across the public sector. As you would expect in a meeting between local and central government, the conversation turned to the requirement for a vision statement.

Those who know me well are acutely aware of my very short attention span (not much greater than a goldfish!) and I blurted out, to the consternation of my colleagues “you want a Vision Statement, how about; ‘Create one version of the truth through a single, accurate and sustainable property dataset, for use as the basis for information exchange across the public sector in Wales”.

Since then it’s been a personal ambition of mine to at least support my colleagues across the public service in them delivering such a bold statement, even at times when my remit has been quite different and I was often warned that I was ‘meddling in areas that I no longer had responsibility for’.

First we had to persuade Unitary Authorities themselves that their own data was a valuable asset. It’s amazing that UAs in Wales were spending over a million pounds in resources maintaining something, then didn’t use it for systems like Council Tax and Non Domestic Rates. This was our first ‘target’ and we set about the task with trepidation. With a little financial help from Welsh Government and serious discounts from suppliers, we linked the UPRN with both Council Tax and Non Domestic Rates systems in Wales for less than £100k. The result being over £1m of additional revenue and Wales going from bottom to top of the National Address Gazetteer ‘accuracy’ league.

Next target was the emergency services, the PSMA helped the argument  they were contributing so why wouldn’t they use it? Also the age old argument about accuracy was not longer feasible with the quality improvements and through a series of analyses it was apparent that emergency services addressing data would improve by around 20%. There is also a benefit in regular communication and update, with emergency services informing their colleagues in local government where addresses were wrong (or in some cases where the supermarket didn’t appear on the dataset!).

Next was developing a way of transferring incident information between emergency services, which common identifier could we use – pretty obvious really, the majority of incidents are related to a place and since we all used the same address identifier, it became a ‘no brainer’ as my daughter would say. Especially to the amazement of those of us who are non emergency service personnel, the existing way of transferring incidents is over the phone.

With the help of the Cabinet Office, Welsh Government, Gwent Police, South Wales Fire and Rescue Service and Newport City Council, we set about developing a system whereby emergency incident information could be transferred electronically between agencies, with the UPRN being the common identifier. During a six week period in 2012, we successfully transferred 1200 incidents and we had broken through both the technological and cultural barriers.

Where do we go from there? Well to be honest, nowhere for a long time. We were faced with the usual cash  barriers and the belief we could not take the pilot to a national level. Eventually through lots of discussions, coffee and chocolate chip cookies (other biscuits are available), we managed to get funding from the Welsh Government to build a ‘Hub’ in Wales as a concept for wider UK information sharing. The Multi Agency Information Transfer (MAIT) project was resurrected. The British Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (BAPCO) threw their considerable weight behind us and took responsibility for supplier engagement and developing an Open Data Standard for the message format. Their involvement also raised the profile considerably within central government and the wider responder community, the impetus grew significantly.

So where are we now? BAPCO have one more hurdle (Open Data Standards Board) before the data schema becomes accepted as the definitive data standard for MAIT development in the future. BAPCO are working with a supplier to build a test ‘Hub’ in the south of England over the coming months and in Wales, we have an operational ‘Hub’ connecting emergency services together. This does not mean everyone is using it yet. As with all good change management projects, we are getting the technology sorted, then concentrating on ensuring everyone is aware, trained and comfortable using the new approach. We also need to make sure that the various other back office systems are connected and fully operational. This will take us another 9 months to get it totally operational and part of everyday life in Wales.

I’m also working with Surrey Police and several other collaborative groups to seek funding and support to establish a number of additional ‘Hubs’ that will enhance resilience.

In addition, several organisations have established risk management tools to aide initiatives such as Fire Safety Checks and identifying vulnerable households. These are exciting developments, the opportunity for multi agency information sharing to support prevention activities and increase intelligence during an emergency scenario will benefit us all. Also, which is the bit that really excites me, (must be getting old) is the opportunity for our colleagues to view this information using a GeoSpatial tool via a mobile device. When we achieve this I’ll retire happy!

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