A new app is giving policymakers the data they need at a moment’s notice. Developed by the Department for Work and Pensions digital team, the “Churchill” app allows civil servants to call statistical data to their fingertips, replacing the weighty document packs they currently struggle through. Users select the data they want, in the location and time frame they need, and the app generates a clear, easy-to-understand visualisation. The project team is now developing the tool to handle data from other departments across the UK government.
Results & Impact
Previously, policymakers at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) would receive weighty document packs which took time to work through and understand. A 2015 report by the business analytics consultancy SAS reported that, out of over 1,000 civil servants surveyed, just 44% said that future strategy decisions are generally evidence-based. The app has received positive feedback from its current users for its ease of use, and also from external organisations which were asked to test it for its potential to transform the way government works. Many other government departments, including the Department for Transport, and the NHS are now keen for their data to be made available via the app.
Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), DWP Digital
The Churchill app compiles data from official sources for policymakers to see on their computers and tablets. Users narrow their selection down according to which metric they want to track, where, and for how long. The selected data is then presented in clear and easy-to-understand visualisations. The team built the app by drawing open data and official UK statistics into a central database, via each organisation’s Application Programming Interface (API). This includes employment and labour market data from NOMIS and welfare data from the DWP's Stat-Xplore. The team plans to embed an analytics function into future versions of the app, which would allow users to highlight and manipulate data within the visualisations.
Cost & Value
The DWP team developed the app using their existing research and development budget.
Running since mid-2016
While coming up with the concept for the app was straightforward, building it required more effort and took significantly longer. With digital projects springing up across government, standards for any new digital product have risen. The project team has concentrated on making sure its visualisations meet these standards.
The development team is now working on a way to get data from across government departments to work through the app. Ryan Dunn, the project’s lead, believes the app could spark open data sharing across government departments and with the public.
With a new app, UK public servants can quickly and easily get the data they need to inform policymaking.
With a simple interface and clear, digestible data visualisations, the Churchill app pulls relevant economic data from open and official sources into one place. It’s described by its creators as “data for people who don’t like data”.
Churchill was developed by the Department of Work and Pensions’ (DWP) digital team and allows policymakers to call up data to answer their specific queries. The current version of the app brings together welfare data from the DWP’s Stat-Xplore, and official labour market statistics from NOMIS.
Using drop-down menus, policymakers select the data they need – such as the number of people on jobseekers allowance – alongside the location and time period they would like to survey, and immediately generate easy-to-use visualisations.
Initially developed for the DWP, the team are now making changes which will allow the app to be used across UK government departments. Several have already requested that their data be made available via the tool.
“We want to facilitate open policymaking,” said Ryan Dunn, head of data science at the DWP Digital hub in Newcastle, where the app was developed. “Policymakers from different government departments are picking up their iPads and having conversations using Churchill to explore relevant data for policy design.”
UK government departments have used data to inform policymaking for many years, but many policymakers still have problems accessing and using data. A 2015 report by the business analytics consultancy SAS reported that out of over 1,000 civil servants surveyed, just 44% said that future strategy decisions are generally evidence-based. David Halpern, head of the government’s Behavioural Insights Team, which pioneered large-scale data analysis to inform its decisions, has stressed the need for empirical policymaking: “It’s a perpetual testing and improving, a kind of restlessness, and there are very few places that are any way down that road.”
Before Churchill, policymakers at the DWP had to request customer information from analysts. They would receive this in large document packs that took time to work through and which and sometimes didn’t answer all their questions, making follow-up requests necessary.
Churchill means policymakers can interpret the data themselves. Describing how the app works, Dunn said: “We draw data in from various sources using APIs, store it in a database and present it visually using what, where, and when principles. When could be looking at trends, or a specific point in time. Where would be various different geographies, local authorities or parliamentary constituencies.”
The app allows policymakers to experiment quickly and easily without waiting for relevant data to be prepared for them or having to search for it from various disparate sources.
“We’re pushing culture change in terms of the way that people consume and interact with data,” said Dunn. “Policymaking is a very investigative and iterative process: finding trusted data, putting it into an application to examine it, and then deciding whether it is what you need. Users from HM Treasury have described the frustrating inefficiency in this process – downloading data, mapping it and redoing it. Churchill makes this whole process much more slick.”
Dunn’s team began to develop the app in mid-2016, using the existing research and development budget for DWP Digital. The team has been in constant dialogue with DWP policymakers to help fit the app to their needs.
“This is a digital open data product which we’re developing into a service,” said Dunn. “We started by understanding user needs. Sitting with a lot of policymakers and analysts and understanding their relationship with data and how they interact with it.”
Dunn’s team has been soliciting feedback from governmental departments, external organisations, and the users themselves, who can use the app itself to submit feedback.
“We’ve had really positive feedback, which I think about on two levels: the potential and the here and now,” said Dunn. “Full Fact [the UK’s independent fact-checking charity] for example are very impressed with the potential for the service to set a new standard for publishing data online.”
“Users from HM Treasury have talked about how intuitive it is to use, and the value of the Agile approach in being responsive and reactive to their needs, and iterating to introduce new data and new features. We’ve also had a lot of positive comments on how the clean visual presentation makes the data easier to consume,” said Dunn.
So far, officials from the National Health Service and the Department for Transport have expressed their interest in the app.
“We’re pushing culture change in terms of the way that people consume and interact with data”
There have been challenges along the way. With the government developing ever more digital products, standards have risen in the past few years. While the utility of the app was clear, developing it has been more difficult, and has taken time. “Conceptually it’s quite a simple thing but on a practical level actually building the infrastructure behind it has been quite time-consuming,” said Dunn.
The team now hope the Churchill example could lead to a wider use of data in government. The project fulfills many of the aims of the Cabinet Office’s Open Policy Agenda, which encourages civil servants to create policy iteratively by testing their proposals against data as they go forward.
Dunn hopes the app will also encourage data sharing across boundaries. “Having data from different government departments sat alongside each other in a way they can be compared easily makes sense, and we’re working to keep the interface as intuitive as possible,” he said. “We’re working with Government Digital Service to consider how we may incorporate the work being done on registers and with the ONS (Office for National Statistics) on some of their work on future APIs.”
(Picture credit: DWP/Ryan Dunn)