04/01/2013 10:18 GMT | Updated 06/03/2013 05:12 GMT

Turning Demographic Data Into Valuable Insight

Earlier this month we saw the second phase release of 2011's census data, which laid bare a wealth of information on an array of demographic criteria. Although the data may seem overwhelming in its rawest form, if harnessed correctly it could actually become an incredibly valuable resource, not only for organisations across the UK, but also the public sector. With the ability to aid evidence-based decisions and improve services in areas such as social housing, healthcare, road maintenance and even policing, the potential this insight has to positively inform future policy making is huge.

The data provided by census forms is a great way of taking a 'temperature check', or benchmark, of the current make-up of society. It provides a snapshot of the UK over one given decade and helps the public sector to build up a picture of the government services required by the nation at a certain point in time. However, in order for the public sector to consistently improve policy and services, it will need to make better and more frequent use of the information it already holds within individual departments, rather than relying solely on Census data once every ten years.

For example, SAS obtained census results dating back to 1951, which showed a dramatic shift in the demographics of the UK over the past 60 years, including significant changes to the shape and size of Britain's public sector. It revealed that, on the whole, the public sector workforce is not growing in line with the UK population, and instead has shrunk over the course of the last 60 years. However, there are a number of knee-jerk assumptions you could make from this if you failed to drill deeper. For example, despite the austerity measures in place over the last few years, the number of people employed by public administration and defence in 2011 is higher than it was 10 years ago at 1.5 million, compared to 1.3 million in 2001. This period includes a time where Labour was in power and the economy was in a much stronger global position. It also covers the onset of the global financial crisis which led to today's recession and a change in government.

So what does this tell us? Well, while the census is an incredibly valuable tool for the government, providing a ten-year view of population data only paints part of the picture. If the government wants to be able to make smarter and more informed policy decisions, rather than retrospective analysis, it will need to be able to monitor demographic data in much more frequent intervals. In the business world, we talk about real-time data analysis. The government might not need anything quite as powerful as that, but anything that will allow it to better understand the shifting demographics in the country, and the effects they will have upon the services it should offer, would be a bonus.

In an age where the government is pursuing its own Digital by Default and Open Data initiatives, the public sector will need to focus its efforts more on tapping into the existing pools of data - such as population data - that are currently available, sharing these across all departments to produce insights that cater to the evolving needs of our nation. For example, an aging population has all sorts of implications for public services, particularly the care and health sectors. Longer working hours could have repercussions for the health sector if people aren't finding time to exercise or if stress-related illnesses are more prevalent. However, with up-to-the-minute data, the public sector would be able to build a real-time picture of today's society and, with the help of analytics, run 'what-if', predictive scenarios on data samples to enable greater evidence-based decision-making across government.

With the UK's austerity measures set to last until 2018, the public sector should acknowledge the marked changes occurring in our society and react accordingly. While the census is a great place to start, it doesn't deliver the timely insights that would enable government to react to the evolving needs of the nation as and when they unfold.