The Big Bang Theory is one of my favourite US comedy programmes. If you haven’t caught up with it yet it is about four young, very brainy, socially inept, science nerds. They come together for gaming and share an obsession with science fiction and super hero comic books. The thing about nerds is despite or because of their superior intelligence they find it very difficult to relate to the rest of us. These four characters often feel more comfortable with an alternative reality than the real one. Where as you and I may enjoy Star Trek and Dr Who they take it that bit further, dressing up as characters, attending SyFy conventions and having a full size cardboard cut out of Mr Spock in their bedroom.
Computer geeks and gaming go together but do Local Authority managers and computer simulations? Geeks ask why real life can’t be more like a computer game. Why can’t local government be like Sim City?
In the game Sim City, as in simulated city, the player receives a massive amount of data about life in the city to enable them to grow the city, keep residents happy and deal with disasters like floods or terrorists attacks. It may be a very simplified version of reality but the principle of using data to manage a city is one that IBM thinks can be extended into the real world. They have developed a product called Operation Centre which can pull together a vast range of data about a town or city and turn it into easy to understand graphs and diagrams.
The assumption is that more data, leads to more timely and accurate information which equips managers to make better decisions. So whether the decision is where to build a bridge to reduce congestion, how to change a road layout to cut accidents, how many new primary schools to build or where best to deploy police officers the decisions will be better if it is based on all the available evidence.
This is how some people would like the real world to operate, decisions to be based on evidence, people to act rationally, a clear consensus on priorities, people to say what they mean and mean what they say. In the real world inconvenient evidence is ignored if it does not fit with public opinion like decriminalising drugs or reducing prison sentences. In the real world which libraries to close, which schools to merge and where to build an industrial incinerator are political decisions.
This is not an argument against collecting and using data it is simply making the point that the data has to be viewed with in a context. A detailed examination of your town or city might start with the drugs trade around a deprived housing estate, a look at how police officers and teacher get through the day and how the education, social care and the justice system all too often thwart good intentions and produces unintended outcomes. How local politics and financial constraints undermine initiatives designed to give people a way out.
Any understanding of the context with in which local government workers needs to take account of politicians sensitivity to local media reports, the relationship with the local media and their tendency to sensationalise, competition for scarce resources setting ethnic groups against each other, the extent to which community leaders play on the fears and suspicions of less favourable treatment and just how much confidence sections of the community have in the police.
Blair McPherson author of Equipping managers for an uncertain future published by Russell House www.blairmcpherson.co.uk