Fighting fire with data at Scottish Fire and Rescue

By Peter Gothard
30 Oct 2013 View Comments
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In September 2012, the Scottish Government decreed that a single fire and rescue service should be created to replace Scotland’s eight regional services.

Speaking to Computing at Qlikview’s Business Discovery World Tour 2013 conference in London, Stuart Chalmers, ICT business service manager at the new combined Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, says the transition presented a number of IT challenges.

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“We had to start by tying together eight different [BI and data management] systems,” says Chalmers. “Some were running software from the same vendor, but it was in different versions, or implemented differently, with off-the-shelf systems configured independently.

“Data definitions were also slightly different, so we had to find a technology to cover that immediate short-term need to very quickly – in three months – be able to provide statistics.”

The solution came in the form of business intelligence platform Qlikview, which, says Chalmers, ticked several more boxes than any of its competitors.

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Chalmers (left) recalls how it was important to find a solution that could “fit into the IT real estate, but also grow with us”.

“We did a broad sweep of the market, and there was a whole bunch of vendors we looked at. Probably the clincher was the Expressor tool, which was a very neat way of encapsulating that whole ETL [extract, transform, load] process, and that whole data governance piece. It gave us great control over definitions and the format, and as systems change and things move around we can easily cope with it.”

Designed to consistently capture and manage metadata as analytic apps are built around it, Chalmers says Qlikview’s open-ended design is particularly helping Scottish Fire focus on the most important aspect of its databases – geography.

Qlikview’s “slice and dice” capability of drilling down into separate data layers via a GUI helps analysts easily manage data enquiry, while helping experts in fire and rescue and safety help design them.

“Everything we do is location-based, but we don’t define boundaries as normal geographic boundaries,” says Chalmers.

“But we’re starting to standardise datasets through Ordnance Survey maps. Properties are all based on special interest,” he says, explaining that buildings such as shopping centres, prisons and hospitals must be expressed in software down to details of the nearest entry point. It’s all so specific that Chalmers admits Qlikview can’t assist in it yet, but he suggests “maybe we’ll get there in the end”.

What Qlikview has helped hugely with, however, is reports. With everything that happens in the fire service being reported back to the Scottish Government’s website – “how many incidents there have been, how they’re categorised in terms of deliberate fires, accidental fires, commercial premises or not,” says Chalmers – switching to manage everything centrally was a huge task.

Luckily, Qlikview’s ability to “drill down” into data “to local ward level” has again helped to organise this neatly and specifically into local areas, but this isn’t the end of Chalmer’s ambitions. He believes Qlikview has the potential to let anyone within the fire service understand and interpret data, and help it to work freely between disciplines within fire and rescue.

“We have a strategy internally that’s working towards that, and it’s not so much in the usual Qlikview sense of discovery, but more cataloguing all the data sets that we have, wrapping some metadata around it and then exposing it through a portal,” says Chalmers.

“We see Qlikview as quite an important part of that, because we could make that portal a Qlikview application. That’s like the government stuff that’s already coming out, but we’ve been looking at making the equivalent of data.gov.uk where people can go [and see it].

“And part of the reason for that is we’ve already got these existing applications with their own data, so we can then stick them all where people can find them. Even down to the HR level, with headcounts, or absences or days off.”

Eventually, says Chalmers, he wants to take Qlikview “give it to people, and then let them tell us to look at where else to take it”.

@PeterGothard

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