Breaking down barriers to data sharing: the key to unlocking Smart Cities

by Victoria Thomason

26 Jun 2017

By Pamela Cook


Earlier this year I spoke on a panel session at a Data Innovation Day in Brussels. The theme for this year’s event was ‘Smart Cities’ and the panel session itself focused on how we can use citizen data to deliver better public services. There were three key takeaways from this panel session; I will discuss each in theme in turn in this Data Innovation Series. This article covers the second theme – barriers to data sharing.


Local government authorities are beginning to recognise the value that data can bring to help deliver some of their key services. Innovative projects are taking full advantage of new technology and the wealth of data that can be extracted from them to improve public services. Birmingham City Council did this successfully when they embedded temperature sensors in their roads to help inform where they should direct their gritting vans during icy weather. Unfortunately, data-driven projects of this kind are most notable because there are so few of them, despite the obvious benefits to councils and citizens alike. A major reason for this is they require cross-department collaboration to succeed; as we discussed in a previous article, there can often be reluctance on the part of data guardians to share data.


A lack of data sharing prevents a single citizen view

When it comes to provision of key public services, which are often citizen-specific (social care, health care, education, etc.), this reluctance to share data means that no one department will have a 360-degree view of its citizens. Gaps in data can be as detrimental as inaccurate data when it is being used to make critical decisions. Without a holistic understanding of each citizen, early intervention opportunities can be missed and vital support provision can be delayed or indeed not provided. For departmental leaders, this can throw up a whole host of internal issues. But for citizens, when they know that their data is incomplete, inaccurate and being used to make incorrect decisions, they can be left feeling disenfranchised and mistrustful of their local government. With such a potentially devastating impact, why wouldn’t councils be doing everything in their power to create a single citizen view?


Sharing makes sense. So why don’t we do more of it?

There are a variety of reasons why council departments aren’t as open to data sharing as they should be. These issues are not specific to the public sector; many private companies of all sizes will be familiar with some of the below!



We all know how vital it is to protect the data in our guardianship and adhere to data protection laws. But the rules are commonly misinterpreted when requests for data sharing come through. Often these laws are cited as the reason why sharing requests are denied, without any real investigation as to whether this is truly the case. Underlying these refusals to share are a variety of explanations, such as a lack of understanding of the rules, a fear of penalisation if they make the wrong decision, or simply using legislation as pretext for an unwillingness to share. Often, even when challenged on whether sharing would be allowed under the laws, it is rarely investigated further and development is prevented.



Formerly, technology constraints have limited how datasets could be managed, analysed and most importantly, kept secure. This has led to a historical hesitance about sharing data that isn’t entirely unfounded. However, there has been a tremendous push for the advert of technology that addresses these issues. Master Data Management systems have revolutionised the process of data sharing, managing large data sets and ensuring data security. These days, the technology itself is no longer the blocker to data sharing; rather it is the lack of knowledge with key decision-makers about what technological options are available to address their issues.



Ensuring data accuracy and creating comprehensive datasets through data sharing is always going to carry a cost: from the expense of purchasing technology and software – on-site or cloud services, to the cost of employee time spent on the project. Having the capital up front has always been a key barrier to getting digital transformation projects off the ground. However, the cost savings and ROI are tangible and it is worthwhile lobbying senior management to give sign off on the required budget in order to see these medium to long term benefits as well as acknowledging the improvement to citizen satisfaction and trust.


Culture of the Caldicott Guardians

Caldicott guardians are responsible for protecting patient confidentiality across the NHS. To share data with other departments can create anxiety over loss of control, patient compromise or judgement on their data quality. This siloed mentality used to be a major factor in the failure to get big data projects off the ground. Fortunately, though, we are seeing an increasing acknowledgment that the quality and accuracy of their data can be improved by cooperating with other departments or external agencies to create a more comprehensive dataset and therefore an improved understanding of the patient. This has been done successfully on a few occasions in the last couple of years, building confidence in the process and preservation of patient confidentiality. The now-achievable end benefits to citizens, patients and local authorities are beginning to be recognised as significant enough to overcome concerns of forfeiting control and exposure to data quality criticism.


How can we overcome these barriers to data sharing?

The barriers above may seem overwhelming, but they are resolvable with the right team in place and a positive desire to collaborate.


Learn by example

Before starting, open discussions with colleagues who have faced, and successfully overcome, similar barriers in their own interdepartmental projects.


Arm yourself with knowledge

In the planning phase, gather your costings, estimated benefits, projected ROI, software options and scope within the legislative framework before you approach other departments for collaboration. This can meet any issues head on before they become barriers and help gain buy-in from key departmental leaders.


Focus on the outcomes

Combining and using data more comprehensively will benefit all departments, helping them to streamline processes, improve data quality and accuracy, deliver better citizen experiences and save money. Keeping this as the focus throughout will help to motivate people to work together to overcome barriers.


The impact on citizens should be centre stage

The truth is that, in the public sector, it is the most vulnerable who suffer when information about them is not shared. Departments can only offer support services for those they know about. When information is not shared, relevant key data can be absent from the datasets used to make support decisions and opportunities for intervention can be missed. It is these edge cases that are detected when all data is shared into a central data management system for all to access. The true value of a ‘Smart City’ is how it can improve the lives of its citizens and to this end, every effort should be made to overcome any barriers that can prevent this from happening.