Environment Agency: How we revamped our data management

The Environment Agency's National Data Integrity Manager Lisa Allen, and Lead Manager for Open Data Michael Rose, share what it's like to have millions of people depend on their data and how a maturity model helps them maximise open data's benefits.

null Environment Agency data helps reduce the risks of flooding to people and properties. CC BY 2.0, uploaded by TomMD5000.

About the authors Lisa leads a team in implementing data governance and data quality, with responsibility for developing, implementing and measuring the EA's data maturity model.

Michael specialises in helping people maximise the benefits of public sector information by partnering and collaborating on data reuse.

The Environment Agency is a public sector organisation with around 10,000 employees covering England.

It protects and improves the environment and makes it a better place for people and wildlife. We reduce the risks of flooding to people and properties; make sure there is enough water for people and wildlife; protect and improve air, land and water quality and apply the environmental standards within which industry can operate. We cannot do this alone. We work closely with a wide range of partners from government, business, local authorities, other agencies, civil society groups and the communities we serve. Making our data available for them to use is key to achieving our outcomes.

Knowing what data you have, how you can use it and whether you can share it is important for any organisation – but especially one like the Environment Agency where we have millions of people depending on our data and information. Increasingly others are also seeing our data as a valued resource in their decision making, so having good data governance is key.

In 2010 the Environment Agency recognised the importance of data management and raised it to an organisational risk. This means it’s kept on our risk register and regularly monitored by senior management.

To help us to manage this risk we developed a data maturity model, providing us with a defined and measurable structure on how to improve. We developed our maturity model to cover the following seven aspects:

  1. Governance – all data and IT has a senior data owner. We call them 'custodians'.
  2. Ownership – all data and IT systems are identified and owned.
  3. Security – all data or IT has a security marking and appropriate access.
  4. Sharing – we know what data we share and with whom.
  5. Interdependencies – we know who relies on us and who we rely on for data internally and externally.
  6. Data standards – we use the same standards for the same themes.
  7. Data quality and confidence – we know the data’s quality and confidence.

One question our custodians asked was “what do I need to do to manage my data well?”. We used our maturity model to give a consistent and coherent answer on the actions needed for their journey ahead. It meant we could manage progress and identify risks in a clear and transparent manner.

Every year the Data Integrity team works with our custodians to review the evidence, provide a maturity score and to highlight areas to improve or share best practice. We’ve carried out these assessments since 2011. Our results show how we have improved managing our data over time.

We have found there are huge benefits of a maturity model:

  • it helps track progress
  • it helps identify risks and priorities
  • it’s an easy way of communicating to senior management without the detail
  • it provides a view across the entire organisation

It’s had wider benefits, too:

  • we’ve saved a significant amount of money from decommissioning IT we no longer need
  • we’ve identified potential savings from reducing the number of similar datasets we currently buy
  • we’ve identified our critical data and
  • we have changed the culture making Open Data easier

In the years since we have introduced the maturity assessment approach, we can show how we have developed as an organisation and the tangible benefits from it. We were really keen to carry out our open data maturity assessment to see how we are doing in our journey towards becoming an organisation that is 'open by default'.

We were reassured to see in the areas of data governance and engagement we have done well, however there is clear room for improvement in other areas and we will develop an action plan to tackle these.

If you haven’t already completed your organisation’s assessment we highly recommend you do, using the Open Data Pathway.

You may ask how both these maturity models fit together. The answer is ours supports basic data management and elements strongly align with the open data model. We see the two models as a continuum; assessing our maturity for both will support us in taking the Environment Agency from an acceptable level of basic data management to maximising the benefits open data can bring.

You can catch up on Michael's Friday lunchtime lecture, with slides and audio here, and follow @dataenvagency on Twitter for updates.

If you have ideas or experience about open data that you'd like to share, pitch us a blog or tweet us at @ODIHQ