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A lot has changed in public health work in Wales over the last few years. Digital and Data advances including new approaches to Artificial Intelligence, automation of simple and complex tasks, the uptake of mobile devices and remote working and diagnostics are just a few areas that have been affected significantly. COVID has accelerated much of this and has fundamentally changed the way many of us work and live.
A lot of people in Wales had to learn to do business online or over the telephone. Studies across the world have shown that digital capability and uptake has accelerated in almost every sector. More people than ever from groups that were considered digitally excluded, like older people, are video chatting, using services such as banking and buying toys and sports equipment online.
In Public Health Wales we’ve worked at the front line throughout COVID just as we have during other outbreaks such as Monkeypox, Swine Flu and many more.
But what was different in COVID was the way technology played such a big part. In test and trace, in travelling, in vaccination, we built new apps and delivered new insights and information at breakneck speed. It wasn’t the kind of pace we could keep up forever, but a lot of people in Wales now want to know whether we can deliver other reports and services the same way.
But meeting a national emergency meant that we had to step away from some of our other work, and so we have built up a real debt in our systems because they have been getting older. Every organisation needs to manage this legacy cost. We need to decide which systems are still good to run, which need to be patched or upgraded and which need to be replaced and decommissioned. The older a system is, the more it is likely to cost to fix, and we have to ensure that patient safety and confidentiality remain secure.
Over COVID, we have, rightly, been focussed on getting data out as fast as possible to meet a single unified national need. As we recover and learn from COVID, we need to reassess the statistics and analysis we produce, and make sure they are what our users need. We will need to serve it up in ways that work for different types of users, from analysts with deep technical knowledge, to senior leaders who need to quickly grasp the most important messages.
So we have been looking at what our landscape is now and what worked well during the last few years. To succeed, we will balance our efforts between managing current services and developing new products to meet public need. A good example of this is the Public Health Rapid Overview Dashboard. Here, we have used our learning about the rapid data that decision-makers find useful, and some new data science skills, to create a rapid overview of the health of the nation.
We have worked with internal and external partners to do some wide-ranging work in the beginning of 2023. We asked ourselves if our assumptions were the same as what people really needed in some of our service areas. What we’ve found is that the people in Public Health Wales really care about helping people in Wales be healthier and happier. But without a strong technical capability, lots of teams spend more time than they need to getting data manually, because that’s the only way they feel confident doing it. By providing Public Health Wales with more access to digital and data professionals and by developing a professional framework we can help to make our processes more efficient. We need to have named owners for our digital and data products.
We’ve found that digital and data professionals want to have a much closer relationship with other specialists in Public Health Wales and vice versa. There’s a desire to understand more about what digital and data teams can do to help. Lots of people we listened to said they felt that there were silos in Public Health Wales that they didn’t feel empowered to break. That’s why our strategy has a focus on empowered professionals.
In order to bridge the divide between where we want to be and where we are, we will use easy architecture documentation for both technical systems and data flows. This architectural understanding of our own systems and data underpins our ability to get and understand what data we have and make it cleaner and safer before we use it to do analyses. When we know what data we wish to capture and use then we know what services and systems we need to develop or change.
In our screening services and our registers, we have separate systems for each service. When we look closely, most of the tasks we have to do are the same. If we organise and build our systems differently then we could have a smaller set of systems that work for more than one service. That would save a lot of money and effort, and we could afford to spend more time on working with users to make those systems better.
Interviews and workshops with our teams show that we want a shared understanding of the direction for digital and data for Public Health Wales and the reason for that direction. That’s why we’re making this strategy. We recognise that taking the time to think strategically is as much a part of the digital and data profession as delivering day-to-day tactical solutions.
We want to have a broader approach to cyber security and data security. As well as maintaining our existing specialists we are finding ways to increase working knowledge of cyber across all our teams, so that everyone in the organisation is another layer of protection. We don’t want to have single points of failure in our systems either, so we are making sure that each activity has more than one person who can do it.
We want to collaborate more outside our organisation. We are in a good position to improve the way we share and link our existing data sets. As well as contributing to national data projects like SAIL Databank and preparing to be a node in the National Data Resource we could be much more effective in delivering change with a good data catalogue and reciprocal data sharing. Before the National Data Promise is delivered, there are still opportunities for us to share information to make a difference.
The way we use data and the way we use technology is always changing. So are people’s needs, which means we need to keep checking and keep developing. However, it is good to have something to aim for, so in our workshops we identified a set of targets to aim for.
Our current targets are: