Staff Services Student Enterprise

Collaboration using data to improve and innovate public services

07 Nov 2023

With an ambition to turn Edinburgh into the data science capital of Europe, the Edinburgh Futures Institute is one of six hubs at the University of Edinburgh, funded by the Edinburgh South East Scotland City Region Deal to improve the data-literacy of the population and develop innovative products and services through the use of data.

Edinburgh Futures Institute places a focus on bringing people, data and diverse disciplines together in an open environment to create new ideas, working closely with and engaging communities, businesses, public services and governments. It convenes ‘spaces’ for co-producing effective ways to work differently.

One example collaboration at the University of Edinburgh is to develop the Scottish Prevention Hub that aims to improve national public health.

This new Hub will co-directed by Dr Kristy Docherty, Public Sector Lead at Edinburgh Innovations and Edinburgh Futures Institute, Clair Thomson, Collaboration Transformation Manager at Police Scotland, and Dr Diane Stockton, Head of Clinical, Public Health Intelligence and Research at Public Health Scotland.

Dr Kristy Docherty said:

Our public services are faced with a variety of significant and complex challenges, which require new kinds of collaborations.
The Scottish Prevention Hub will bring together Police Scotland and Public Health Scotland with the University’s expertise - from our academics across 21 schools, our sister innovation hubs such as the Bayes Centre and our professional services expertise represented in Edinburgh Innovations. The diverse nature of the partnership will generate an innovative research, education and practice, prevention eco-system.

Improving frontline services with data

The team at the Bayes Centre, the University of Edinburgh's Innovation Hub for Data Science and Artificial Intelligence have been working with the Data Unit at Police Scotland to facilitate various projects mainly in conjunction with the Schools of Informatics and Maths. Projects have been focusing on how to improve the use of data in terms of volume, structure and content to help front-line police officers improve service at the point of delivery.

Collaboration with local communities to improve use of data in public sector marketing campaigns

Another example of collaboration is the research led by Dr Ben Collier, together with other researchers at the universities of Edinburgh Strathclyde, Napier and Cambridge. The research group have been working with Scottish Institute of Policing Research Network to study how the public sector has begun increasing sophistication of everyday communications.

They have found the increasing incorporation of marketing expertise into frontline law enforcement interventions so that targeted digital communications campaigns are being used, not simply to raise awareness, but to directly shape and change the public’s behaviour. On the one hand, the police have their own datasets of recorded crime and intelligence, on the other hand, marketing consultancies bring massive corporate consumer datasets and digital profiles that allow them to segment the public into audiences. Examples of such campaigns have been found covering gun crime, cybercrime, online grooming and domestic violence as well as health and safety issues (buying a candle), vaccination and the environment.

Using marketing campaigns in this way to encourage the population to take action in the personal and public good are welcome, but the research group argues that greater collaboration with local communities is required to understand and mitigate any unintended consequences, up to and including potential harms inflicted on those being targeted.

Dr Collier says:

Modern, active communications tactics (particularly those enhanced with digital targeting) cannot be seen as simple PR campaigns. They are frontline preventative interventions and require adequate scrutiny, accountability and evidence. Just as with other interventions, they can be carried out as top-down, command-and-control exercises in disciplinary power, or they can be truly embedded and created with communities, who can be asked what messages they want to receive and how”.

To find out how you can work with the  University of Edinburgh’s public sector research expertise please contact Noreen O'Donnell

Image credits: Adobe Stock/Jane (Header) and Adobe Stock/Camerene/

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