Dr Jim Glocking updates us on RISCAuthority’s campaign for public access to the government’s fire and rescue service Incident Recording System database and how the Home Office may now assist in this quest.

IN THE February issue of FRM, I described both my disappointment at the Department for Communities and Local Government’s sustained refusal to share with the public the data held within the fire and rescue service’s Incident Reporting System (IRS) and my optimism that with the responsibility for fire passing over to the Home Office, they might take a more proactive and helpful stance. Via the website www. data.gov.uk, the Home Office is already accustomed to making information public in the areas of crime, migration, policing and the police workforce, alcohol and drugs, licensing, animals in science, and counter terrorism, and they do this very well.

In March, I attended the Fire and Rescue Statistics Users Group meeting, held for the first time at the Home Office. In this meeting, a way forward was mapped out for the future release of data. In preparation for the meeting, attendees had submitted their requirements, and submissions were additionally made by each of the Fire Sector Federation working groups. It was very encouraging to see the conversations focus on the release of ‘case data’ described in time and space, rather than pre-analysed and grouped data that hinders third party usage. I very much hope this continues to be the thinking. There are of course challenges, particularly in respect of the Data Protection Act (DPA), designed to protect the privacy of the individual. To deal with this, the Home Office’s approach is to produce a series of data sets that may or may not be interlinkable with each other, depending on the subject matter in hand.

By way of example, non-contentious datasets that might seek to examine eg ‘response’ and ‘extent of damage’ might be issued as case data, accurately placed in space and time with event dates and locational coordinates. Such an offering would allow users like myself to match the cases with the financial loss data we hold and we could do very useful things with the combined dataset. Other datasets, such as those dealing with crime, injury, deaths and the individual may be manipulated in a way that ensures the confidentiality of the person. In this alone there are complexities, but this is not a new challenge and other good examples exist from government where it has managed to adhere to the DPA but still produce something of great value. Census data is a good example of this.

The emphasis now is for all interested parties to describe to the Home Office the explicit requirements of the data they need and it will seek to deliver as much of this as open data as it is possible to do. The more that can be released on this basis, the less burdensome will be the effort required to support individual requests under contract.

In making these requests, it’s clear that many stakeholders do not know what data to ask for. This is not surprising, as a lack of data stops people from addressing the possible ‘what-ifs’. It is our experience within RISCAuthority that the true power of data only really shows itself once you start playing with it.

Our own tools started when we modelled the UK fire and rescue service response for the UK. In undertaking this task, we had to acquire and use a powerful geographic information system (GIS). Having become adept with these systems, we realised what we could achieve by placing more data on the system from every relevant source possible, which led to the creation of the Informer Database (an ‘up-mystreet’ type website for risk factors at every one of the UK’s 1.8 million postcodes). Then, in association with our financial loss statistics database, we realised we could produce an intelligent computational ‘engine’, which was aware both of occupancy and local risk factors, to assess the key risk control provisions required to support every business of the commercial estate. This is the Business and Property Protection Portal, which will be released in beta form in the next eight weeks.

My advice to stakeholders, therefore, is to ask for as much as you can get away with without jeopardising the content of what you might ultimately receive. You are probably not in a position to appreciate now what great use you might put it to later.

Dr Jim Glockling is technical director of the FPA and director of RISCAuthority

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