A common problem across all local authorities is that they seldom have the capacity or infrastructure to process the extremely high rate of change relating to business premises and names.
This is particularly acute in the London Borough of Harrow and without the necessary resources to track these changes, this lack of Address Change Intelligence (ACI) is preventing them from maximising their analytical capability in terms of town centre management, business rates and service provision.
The likes of Companies House and the Council’s Business Rates and internal Licensing Departments have limited capability in providing this information as the data they hold does not necessarily reflect what is actually on the façade of the shop frontage. In addition to this, resources to tackle this issue are severely limited and it is simply unfeasible to conduct site visits to obtain this information due the vast amount of commercial properties (7,480) to audit, coupled with their significantly high rate of change.
Address intelligence at the council is centralised within the Local Land and Property Gazetteer (LLPG), of which the creation and maintenance of all residential and commercial address data within the Council’s boundaries is accountable to the Authority Address Custodian.
Recognising this lack of business ACI as a significant gap in the LLPG, the Custodian decided to tackle this problem head on as they saw the benefits to be wide reaching.
The process of improving the business ACI was initiated with three main objectives, two of which were in order to underpin key transformational projects currently underway, already utilising LLPG data:
The Council’s Towards Excellence Programme (TEP) is a series of projects aimed at transforming their Environment & Enterprise Directorate, which includes planning, on street services and engineers. The goal of the project is to create a service delivery model that is more technologically advanced and efficient, allowing necessary savings to be made via efficiency rather than service cuts.
Underpinning the programme is a custom technology solution that has been built specifically to consume the LLPG and utilise the organisation name field to populate a list of ‘Business Entities’. These are driven solely by the entries in the LLPG, utilising the UPRN (unique property reference number) as the unique identifier. The requirement to have accurate organisation names in the LLPG is therefore paramount as the entire Environment & Enterprise Directorate would be relying on this data to effectively deploy its services such as to issue licenses, conduct visits, inspections and billing against that specific business and address as held in the LLPG.
The LLPG therefore needed to have a complete and accurate business name holding to meet this requirement along with a mechanism to keep it current without being resource intensive.
MyHarrow Account is the Council’s online citizen portal for residents, which utilises the LLPG to integrate and centralise key council services into a single area, facilitating self-service and channel migration to the web.
After a successful phase one, the next phase of MyHarrow Account is to provide end to end services for businesses customers with a requirement similar to the TEP in the sense that an accurate and updated list of commercial properties with their business names is crucial for this to succeed.
The ability to have this data would enable the explicit identification of businesses, enabling the business owner to sign up and facilitate integration with the core suite of services offered by the council. This will directly tie in with the new workflows created by the TEP, enabling business to report issues, request visits and apply for licensing if needed.
As with Objective One, a complete and accurate listing of business names within the LLPG would be essential for phase two to be completed.
In addition to the main transformational projects, ensuring the council had a fit for purpose LLPG for all business requirements would have considerable benefits. Having an up to date and a high currency of business names was a primary concern as this was an area where the LLPG was severely lacking due to the age old problem of not having a definitive source to obtain such ACI from.
Areas that could additionally benefit from having this data in the LLPG would include creating business address web services, commercial property GIS layers and many more.
What the Project Actually Did
Before commencing the project, the quantity of business names for commercial properties in the LLPG was only at 41.3% completeness, so the problem faced was essentially how the Council could rapidly transform the LLPG into a fit for purpose dataset that would meet the requirements for the TEP, MyHarrow Account and corporate GIS functions, being as close to 100% as possible.
The solution had to be one that did not impose a strain on internal resources and therefore required a hands off approach to be adopted, whilst the ability to have frequent updates and business names of a high integrity was key to meeting this success criteria.
The solution was created after a collaborative blue-sky thinking session with Aligned Assets, the Council’s gazetteer management system supplier, who had an existing relationship with 118 Information, the company that supplies commercial data to the likes of Bing, 118118 and the BT Phonebook.
Taking one month to devise and a further month to implement, through a combination of the Council’s internal processes, Aligned Assets software and the 118 business database, a process was created to fulfil all aims and objectives:
- An automatic LLPG database extract is taken and sent via FTP to Aligned Assets each month
- Aligned Assets match the commercial records against 118 Information’s holding for the Harrow area and create an update file to be sent back
- The update file is loaded into Aligned Assets Xtended Data Module (XDM), which has the functionality to add additional attributes to the LLPG whilst not inserting them directly into the gazetteer so as to avoid issues surrounding IPR
- A customised export using Aligned Assets’ Symphony iExchange application is used to create various DTF full extracts and CoU permutations following the logic below for use in internal systems:
- LLPG organisation name only
- LLPG organisation name if
present, otherwise 118
- 118 organisation name if
present, otherwise LLPG
- 118 organisation name only
The data exchange process is seamless in the sense that all exports are conducted behind the scenes and sent to Aligned Assets automatically, which means the time required by staff to implement the process is negligible. The import process of the 118 file is extremely simple and it takes less than two minutes to update the entire database, and there may be future scope to automate the import process in which case a true “set and forget” solution would have been created.
Due to the various DTF export logic settings within the Symphony iExchange application, potential breaches in IPR are avoided as data is not permitted to be sent back to the GeoPlace hub. The solution is therefore adding considerable value to the LLPG and the authority whilst not compromising IPR or council sourced data as it effectively separates these entities.
As they now have the capability to ‘fill in the blanks’ with the 118 data, the main outcome of the project is that the London Borough of Harrow has a fit for purpose LLPG in terms of the business names requirements for the TEP and MyHarrow Account.
Their previous organisation name field population was 41.3% (3090 records out of 7480), however with the supplement of 118 data, this has risen to 94.1% (7039 records out of 7480), a staggering 128% increase in the amount of validated organisation name entries.
In addition to meeting the key requirements for the TEP and MyHarrow account and the subsequent ability to benefit from these once the projects go-live, the Council are currently experiencing other significant benefits as a result of the project.
Prior to the solution, there were on-going requirements by the planning research team, town centre managers and emergency planning officers to answer questions such as “can I have a list of all the supermarkets, pharmacies, news agents, café’s etc within the borough”. In these cases, using the LLPG was advised against as the data held on these commercial properties was unverified and incomplete.
With the new solution in place, the LLPG can be used for this purpose as the Council has been able to utilise BLPU class updates from the 118 data to ensure that commercial properties in the LLPG are correctly classified. In conjunction with the DTF export options as described previously, extracting this information is now extremely simple and can be transformed into a GIS layer, ready to be queried on a range of corporate GIS systems such as ArcGIS, The Harrow Address Lookup and Hub Maps.
A further significant benefit of the 118 project is that it aids in the detection of businesses unknown to, and therefore potentially unbilled by, the Business Rates team. Each month a list of 118 records that could not be matched to the LLPG is created, which represents an opportunity to drill down as to exactly why they did not generate a match. Currently the unmatched file totals 441 businesses, of which there is potential for a percentage of those to be unbilled.
Considering the announcement by Brandon Lewis MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in January 2013 regarding the Business Rates Retention Scheme, this offers a prime opportunity for the Council to generate considerable revenue through the retention of up to 50% of all business rates collected. The key facilitator here is the 118 data telling the Council exactly where to look.
The true financial benefits are difficult to quantify as both the TEP and the business section of MyHarrow Account are yet to go live (April 2014). However, the alternative means to meet the requirements for TEP and MyHarrow Account would have most likely resulted in employing (at minimum) one additional resource for a 1 year period to bring the existing business names up to an acceptable level. This can be quantified as a salary, plus associated on costs, the total of which would be approximately £30,260.
The solution itself cost approximately £4.5K (capital cost) with a £3k revenue cost for on-going licensing of the 118 data. Considering these figures, there is an inferred saving of £25,760, which would translate to over eight years of the revenue cost.
When considering the proportion of unmatched businesses that the 118 data has flagged (441 for the current month), the successful detection of a single unbilled business has the potential to generate revenue in excess of £2.5k (based on a small business of £5k at 50% retention). If only two currently unbilled businesses are detected each year then the 118 project would be essentially self-funding as the £3k revenue cost would be met and exceeded.
The potential to discover further unbilled businesses is purely a question of the amount of time that is put aside into investigating such cases and therefore the revenue stream could be considerably more.
Luke Studden, LLPG & GIS Officer, London Borough of Harrow explained that, “the level of data accuracy we are seeing from 118 Information is unparalleled. We have been running the process for 5 months and the volume of changes, inserts and edits is significant . This quantity of ACI is invaluable as it ensures the data we are receiving is current and accurate.”
The process undertaken by 118 Information is incomparable to a single custodian conducting site visits to obtain the same data as 118 is a company set up specifically to acquire and maintain business data.
As a comparison, for London Borough of Harrow to conduct site visits to verify the names of all 7,480 commercial properties in the borough would take 250 days (30 visits per day), excluding the site visit preparation or GMS edits required. Through 118, the Council are getting this information on a monthly basis in high volume, which means the solution avoids employing an additional resource to meet the requirements of TEP and MyHarrow Account and therefore represents invaluable cost avoidance.
This project has demonstrated how tremendous benefit can be gained when the LLPG is supplemented with third party data in a ‘clean’ and controlled way. Although the London Borough of Harrow implemented the project specifically for two existing transformational projects, the benefits have been recognised beyond these and a process has been created that is both transferable and repeatable by other local authorities.
- Capability to ‘fill in the blanks’ with 118 data
- Created a fit for purpose LLPG
- Fulfilled the requirements of both the TEP and MyHarrow Account
- Increase of 128% in the amount of validated organisation name entries
- Ability to query business data in a range of corporate GIS
- Aids in the detection of businesses unknown to, and therefore potentially unbilled by, the Business Rates team
- Potential to be self-funding through the discovery of unbilled business rates
- Inferred saving of £25,760 over employing additional staff
- Process would take 250 days if performed manually
- Demonstrates how tremendous benefit can be gained when the LLPG is supplemented with third party data in a ‘clean’ and controlled way
- Transferable and repeatable by other local authorities