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Discovering the GSS Data Landscape – Our tour of the north

As it’s a new year, we’re catching up on all of our visits from the end of 2016. We’re undertaken 5 visits to other government organisations so far – here’s an update on our “tour of the north” that took place in November.

It was a hectic few weeks for the team. We carried out 3 deep dive sessions taking us north of home to sneak a peek into the world of statistics at the Scottish Government, Department of Work and Pensions and the offices of Natural England.

Scottish Government

scotlandAs we expected, the Scottish statistical canvas is huge. There are so many areas producing statistics across the country that it’s impossible to gain any more than a basic insight during our 2-day trip. The team in Scotland have done a great job in bringing some of their data into the Linked Data world, which is why we were keen on working with them. As a devolved administration, they also provide different challenges around data collection and provision.

We learnt that there is great deal of data, lots of ways in which statistical data are curated and a number of different platforms that these data exist on. We also recognised there are going to be challenges when it comes to linking data involving geography. Scotland makes use of the standard character codes but this doesn’t exactly match the coding used by England and Wales.

They are currently doing a great piece of work to align and bring the major Scottish statistical producers together, and we had really informative meetings with James Gamgee and Albert King to get an understanding of the work they are doing. Both of our projects are aiming for the same outcome, so we’re very excited and encouraged to see how it was all happen.

Department of Work and Pensions

We then caught a train back over the border to Newcastle for another 2 jam-packed days in which we were offered a small insight into this huge organisation.

The thing that struck me most about this visit was the level of complexity and the sensitivity of the data DWP manage. It is truly sobering to remember what happens across the GSS and how it really makes a difference to people’s everyday lives. It was a great reminder of the importance of the work we’re trying to do, and the potential impact of this.

dwp-statxplore-screenThe StatXplore tool used by DWP is unique within government as it provides aggregation and disclosure control on the fly. This is a very useful mechanism that many other departments have shown an interest in having.

We’ll consider this as part of a wider roadmap in the future, albeit an open sourced version if this work continues.

Natural England

A few weeks later, we visited Natural England, one of the many agencies within the Defra environment (pun intended). They have a huge array of data produced from farming and fishing, animals and forestry. There are a range of output mechanisms with data on both GOV.UK and

We learned that European policy is a significant driver of the data the teams produce, and it will be interesting to see how negotiations around leaving the EU will impact the production of this data.

What we’ve found out so far

For me, the biggest things the team have taken away are:

  • it’s unusual that common identifiers are used to describe the same thing
  • there’s limited user research and user engagement around the use of statistical data
  • there are more solutions provided and supported by third party vendors than expected

As we’d always assumed, the big challenges are around how we build links between the different data sources to support interoperability, and how we bring small area data together to form a UK perspective.

As ever, the people we’ve met at the other departments have been incredibly helpful, giving up their time to walk us through their processes, data and occasionally escort us to the loos. A big thank you to Gregor Boyd and the team at Scottish Government, Gemma Kirk and the team at DWP and Ken Roy and the team at the Natural England offices for organising and running the sessions.

Next blog

We’ve just visited the NHS Digital team, which we’ll be blogging about in the next few weeks, as well as updating you on the questionnaire that Heads of Profession have recently received, and the prototype we’re developing

As ever, if you have any questions, would like to know more, or have useful information to share with us about your specific department, please email us.

Darren Barnes, Office for National Statistics