Supporting urgent policy needs during a global crisis
The Local Data Spaces project is a multidisciplinary collaboration between the Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC), Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC), the Office for National Statistics (ONS), and ADR UK. It was set up to support local authorities, groups, and stakeholders response to the pandemic using granular, secured data and research-driven analyses. The research has been recognised as innovative, winning the prestigious ONS Research Excellence Project Award 2021 for delivering public good and informed policy decisions.
COVID-19 stretched insufficient resources within local authorities. The research team engaged with 25 of them to better understand local priorities, contexts, and research needs. Two core research priorities were identified - ‘Which occupational groups had higher prevalence of COVID-19?’ and, ‘How did high street footfall change in relation to local economic restrictions?’. Stakeholders reported being in ‘firefighting’ mode to deliver basic data needs (e.g., reporting daily counts of infections), with little space for broader research. Most did not have the means to process complex data science, and had insufficient time to complete necessary Safe Research Accreditation and Documentation, limiting their ability to utilise the ONS’s Secured Research Service (SRS).
The SRS includes core national data products, such as NHS Test and Trace, the COVID-19 Infection Survey, the Annual Population Survey, death registration records, and more. These data sources were supplemented with openly available datasets including the ONS Population Estimates, Google Mobility Data, and CDRC open data products such as the CDRC Business Census and Access to Healthy Assets and Hazards (AHAH). Data was acquired on footfall from the CDRC to inform trends in shopping behaviours and retail outcomes. During the six-month project, ONS datasets were combined with the CDRC’s consumer data, creating ten reports for each English Local Authority.
Ten focused, short reports for each area (freely available from the CDRC website and automatically generated for all 314 local authorities in England) were built to tackle themes related to local COVID-19 impacts, from demographic and occupational inequalities, through to excess mortality and economic vulnerabilities. They delivered highly tailored insights into how communities were affected by the pandemic, to help shape policy strategies. The reports were produced using open-source R notebooks that generated all analyses and visualisations. By sharing open-source scripts, technical barriers were reduced for local authorities using data within the SRS, helping them replicate the work. The code is shared via our GitHub page and the ONS has agreed to allow local authorities to directly import our code into their project spaces. Knowledge exchange was a key part of the project, to enable local government impact and advocate the potential of the ONS Secure Research Service (SRS) to address gaps in local authority data availability. Three local authorities were able to successfully apply to use the SRS during the pilot, following support from the Local Data Spaces team.
The reports provided a number of practical efficiencies, with all of the processes to prepare datasets already completed – vital for local authorities without the analytical resources or time to undertake the work themselves. The reports allowed access to high-quality datasets that they may not have accessed otherwise. The Local Data Spaces team used the reports to paint a picture of the impacts of the pandemic, and to provide regional and national level comparisons where possible to highlight relative local level impact.
In Liverpool, the reports identified sections of the community with low confidence in using Internet technologies were less likely to make use of lateral flow tests. This led to local efforts to promote testing beyond social media, feeding these insights into the national rollout of lateral flow testing, which helped reopen workplaces and schools after lockdown. It also led to a policy change, altering where local testing sites were situated within Liverpool in order to increase catchment. In Norfolk, analysis showed furloughed workers were three times more likely to have caught COVID-19 than actively employed or self-employed individuals, suggesting more could have been done to prevent COVID-19 outside workplaces. A similar pattern was observed nationally. Two accepted peer-reviewed papers were produced during the pilot.
The project found COVID-19 did not significantly vary across England between men and women within different work sectors or occupations. One exception was the higher rate for COVID-19 in women employed in personal services jobs (e.g., hairdressers, cleaners, beauticians) at the start of the second wave. Findings from this work were presented to SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) to help inform national policy around gender inequalities, and were referenced in two SAGE reports (11th February 2021 and 24th March 2021).
“The pandemic has shown the importance of getting the right data into the right hands,” said Dr Mark Green, lead researcher. “Local Data Spaces has opened up new data sources to local authorities and helped them proactively respond to COVID-19.” Local authorities are now able to quickly uncover the impact COVID-19 has had across a range of health, human mobility, and economic themes in their own regions. Data insights from our reports have supported policy decisions, having been incorporated into oral presentations to the Department of Health and Social Care, the UK Government and SAGE on lessons learnt for shaping the national roll-out of asymptomatic COVID-19 testing. Professor Alex Singleton, CDRC co-director, added, “The strategic ESRC funding enabling the Local Data Spaces project perfectly illustrates the value and impact that can be unlocked by the social sciences when integrating consumer and government data within trusted research environments.”
References and further information:
Green MA, Garcia Finana M, Barr B, et al. 2021. Evaluating social and spatial inequalities of large scale rapid lateral flow SARS-CoV-2 antigen testing in COVID-19 management: An observational study of Liverpool, UK (November 2020 to January 2021). The Lancet Regional Health – Europe. Link to follow once published (see https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3786003 for now)
Green MA. 2021. Thinking spatially to communicate and evaluate the roll-out of ‘mass’ testing in Liverpool, 2020. People, Place & Policy.
All Local Data Spaces reports are hosted openly on the following website https://data.cdrc.ac.uk/geodata-packs
Citations of Local Data Spaces work (specifically analyses conducted by Dr Mark Green, University of Liverpool) in the following SAGE reports:
ONS: Differential impacts of the Coronavirus pandemic on men and women, 24 March 2021 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/ons-differential-impacts-of-the-coronavirus-pandemic-on-men-and-women-24-march-2021
EMG: COVID-19 risk by occupation and workplace, 11 February 2021 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/emg-covid-19-risk-by-occupation-and-workplace-11-february-2021