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Big data: a big opportunity or just big brother?

The Guardian - Data sharing offers opportunities for local authorities to understand communities and improve services.

Imagine a world where real time data could be used to provide personalised services that meet the needs of individual families. This information could show us more clearly what communities want, leading to smart commissioning and outcome-based services. This might sound like pie in the sky today, but in some south-east Asian and North American cities technology is already being used to ensure local authorities design good public services for the first time.

The word collaboration is used a lot in local government. To most, collaboration means meeting in a room, pooling a few budgets, sharing staff and providing services collectively. But this is just scraping the surface of what collaboration could mean for councils.

A digitally-connected world creates a virtual platform to collect, analyse and use data in new ways. This will lead to true integration between service providers. Technology can help stimulate innovation and allow councils to connect with citizens more easily, responding to their needs and also changing their behaviour and choices.

With funding cuts biting, the Cabinet Office estimates that improving digital performance could save the public sector up to £33bn a year – equivalent to £500 per head of the population. Some councils are waking up to the opportunities of data, but too often discussions around digital tools begins by looking at what doesn't work: the problems with IT systems; issues of confidentiality and data protection. These are genuine issues to overcome, but they should not be game stoppers. The starting point for big data should be examing the potential that it has to change lives.