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https://gds.blog.gov.uk/2022/10/17/the-single-data-environment-joined-up-digital-analytics/

The Single Data Environment: joined-up digital analytics

A graphic that illustrates a user journey that starts and ends on GOV.UK, but takes the user through other Government Services, at which point GDS loses visibility because the data is managed by other data controllers.

The Government Digital Service (GDS) exists to help government make great public services for everyone. In addition to developing, maintaining and optimising our own flagship products, like GOV.UK, we work closely with other government departments (OGD) to support their service offerings, ensuring they are user-centric and fit-for-purpose.

Central to this mission is data-driven and evidence-based decision making, which in itself needs strong data foundations and high quality data sources and insights which we can share with confidence.

With that in mind, we are working on an ambitious project to join up and share digital analytics tracking across departments, to enable a single user view across services, departments, and platforms, and by extension help departments understand pain points and optimise user journeys.

Let’s take a step back to look at the problem space from the beginning.

The problem space

GDS currently has access to Google Analytics data for users who have opted into analytics tracking on GDS-managed domains, such as gov.uk and design-system.service.gov.uk. Once a user clicks on a link to a service on service.gov.uk or elsewhere, GDS loses sight of the journey, since service domains are managed wholly by the government departments that own them.

To give a sense of scale, in August 2022, users clicked on links to around 250,000 external domains/pages from GOV.UK, most of which are other government service domains with their own analytics tracking. The same is also true for other government departments - they can see their own analytics data, but not how these journeys connect to others, including GOV.UK.

Without visibility of the journey end-to-end, we are limited in:

  • our understanding of user behaviour
  • ability to identify and address issues and pain points
  • generate insights or measure performance, such as completion rates, at a macro level

For example, we know that last year GOV.UK had more than 800,000 searches for Universal Credit and close to 100 million sessions that accessed the page “Sign in to Universal Credit”.  Unfortunately we have no visibility of what proportion completed the end-to-end Universal Credit journey successfully, at which point they may have dropped off, or how users of Universal Credit might interact with other information or services on GOV.UK.

Joining up the government’s digital analytics estate would not only have a direct impact on optimising our users’ experience of government and their ability to successfully complete tasks, but also provide government benefits through reducing failure demand and lowering average costs of administering services, whilst also supporting GDS’ and the Central Digital and Data Office’s (CDDO) broader strategies.

The background

But this isn't a new idea. There was an earlier attempt to track user journeys across government domains through the Cross-Domain Data (CDD) project. This required government departments to add in code snippets that would allow for journeys to be linked across the domains through page views.

A lot was learnt through this early iteration, and these learnings have been pivotal for what’s next. This included streamlining the data-sharing process, greater clarity in who could access the data through data-sharing agreements, and a scalable technical approach.

The Single Data Environment

This next iteration is based on creating a Single Data Environment (SDE), where there is a single analytics consent model used across all government domains, which allows consent status to remain valid across pages and domains. This in itself, will make the user experience significantly smoother, as we already know from user research that having to consent multiple times, through what users believe or expect to be a single website, is frustrating.

Furthermore, this will be coupled with a single Google Analytics (GA) property to allow all web analytics data to flow into the same property, and eventually, with a consistent tracking schema through the forthcoming migration to GA4. Unlike the CDD project, the Single Data Environment will allow both the GDS and departments to view this data, enabling the review of the wider end-to-end whole user journey through anonymised data aggregates, as well as in-depth performance reviews of departmental services and GOV.UK journeys.

Our intention is to keep the overheads on departments for this new approach as low as possible, which will consist of: (1) adding a javascript code snippet into their frontend, (2) implementing an analytics consent component, and (3) signing up to a revised and consistent data sharing agreement; all of which will be provided by GDS.

It has been important for us to maximise the learnings from CDD, to ensure the success of this major data project. So far, we have:

  • conducted an initial proof of concept with the GDS Digital Identity domain to prove the methodology and data
  • presented the project for comment to key stakeholder groups across all levels of government (Chief Data Officers council, Chief Technology Officers council, Privacy and Consumer Advisory Group (PCAG), Data Protection Officers (DPOs), Functional Leaders Group, Digital and Data Board)
  • created a cross-government DPO working group, to have early visibility and comment of our data-sharing and privacy documentation
  • created a prototype, sandbox environment, to demonstrate how the product works and what the data looks like
  • onboarded early adopters (Cost of Living and Department for Education’s Find and Apprentice campaigns) to further stress-test our approach and processes

We’re keen to release early value and streamline our onboarding process with our current version of GA Universal Analytics, but also want to avoid onboarding too many services that we will then have to migrate again in the new version.

The intention is to begin our wide-scale roll-out from January 2023, which will coincide with the launch of our GA4 tracking schema and Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA). We also want to integrate Single Data Environment tracking within the Design System, so new services include this out of the box, and the onboarding list does not keep growing indefinitely.

Watch this space for more updates (our next post will include examples of the kind of data and analysis we can conduct through the Single Data Environment) and please contact us if you are interested in being an early adopter.

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12 comments

  1. Comment by Peter Jordan posted on

    I'd be interested to know how this approach gets around restrictions that browsers are increasingly building to prevent sharing data across domains.

    For example:
    ● `gov.uk` = e(effective)TLD
    ● `example.gov.uk` = eTLD+1
    ● `example2.gov.uk` = a different eTLD+1
    `example.gov.uk` can’t read / write cookies for `example2.gov.uk`, and vice-versa,
    because they are different eTLD+1.

    Reply
    • Replies to Peter Jordan>

      Comment by Tina Mermiri posted on

      Hi Peter,

      Thanks for your comment.

      You are correct to highlight the challenges in sharing data due to gov.uk being an effective top level domain and that we cannot use cookies to share data. For this reason we will be using URL parameters as documented here: https://support.google.com/analytics/answer/10071811?hl=en

      The sharing of consent will build on the data sharing via URL parameters to include a check to an in-house consent API, the result of which would be stored in a first party cookie set to the domain doing the request. This will allow us to share a common client ID and consent across domains when a user crosses them in a single journey.

      Thanks,
      Tina

      Reply
  2. Comment by Martin Paver posted on

    Would be great to link you up with the work of the Project Data Analytics Task Force and Construction Data Trust. We are helping to leverage the vast and rich seam of data that emerges from project delivery. Sounds like there could be a lot of synergy.

    Reply
    • Replies to Martin Paver>

      Comment by Tina Mermiri posted on

      Hi Martin,

      Please feel free to get in touch through the email address in the post if you would like to share more detail on the above.

      Thanks,
      Tina

      Reply
  3. Comment by peterkwells posted on

    Hi,

    the term SDE is being heavily used in data-for-statistics-and-research world as an acronym for Secure Data Environment - https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/secure-data-environment-policy-guidelines/secure-data-environment-for-nhs-health-and-social-care-data-policy-guidelines. That use is currently in health+social care, but could expand.

    To reduce confusion in and outside government I'd suggest renaming the web/digital analytics data environment that this project intends to create

    Reply
    • Replies to peterkwells>

      Comment by Tina Mermiri posted on

      Hi Peter,

      As outlined in the post, we have already presented to a number of stakeholder groups who have bought into the concept and have connected it to the Single Data Environment ‘brand’, which describes what we are trying to do well. There will inevitably be similar names and acronyms across the industry, but as long as we are clear about what we are referring to and provide the full context, we expect this will be well understood and avoid any confusion.

      Thanks,
      Tina

      Reply
  4. Comment by Nikola Coleman posted on

    This is really great work! Would be super interested to understand in more details and how it evolves! I’m trying to understand this exact view at DVSA across MOT services but the challenge always comes when your services span multiple agencies, so it’s definitely become a head scratcher for me! 🙂 great read!

    Reply
    • Replies to Nikola Coleman>

      Comment by Tina Mermiri posted on

      Hi Nikola,

      Thanks for your comment. We plan to share more on the work and how it progresses across different cross-government networks and hope to provide another update on this blog in the future. The example you’ve given around multiple agencies delivering MOT services is exactly the type of journey we’d like to join up!

      Thanks,
      Tina

      Reply
  5. Comment by john mortimer posted on

    You describe about learning about how people move along their journey of digital front ends. This is perhaps relevant for highly transactional and simple services, that are similar to people wanting a 'product'.

    However, the real journey of most citizens, when they are in need of something, is often complex. When we have engaged directly with citizens to understand their journey, we have found many things that relate to their engagement, and not just their interactions.
    The first thing we find is that most of their interactions are not appropriate. They have been bounced from one service to the other.
    The other thing we find is that their real journey is only partially digital, and most of their journey involved calling their local authority, talking to Citizens Advice, engaging with a service only to find that it has not solved their issues.
    Person to person interactions are a core part of the delivery of most public services, and the more we understand how that works, the better we will become at designing the whole service - rather than their interactions.

    Reply
    • Replies to john mortimer>

      Comment by Tina Mermiri posted on

      Hi John,

      Thanks for your comment - we completely agree that the landscape of government services is extremely complex and very often disjointed and split across multiple platforms, online and offline. It would be great if we could get to a truly user-led view of interactions with government services across all the touch-points, but hopefully joining up the digital part of these, which we have more control over, is the first step.

      Thanks,
      Tina

      Reply
  6. Comment by Gavin posted on

    It would be interesting to see (if you can share) the work around using google GA4 in respect of GDPR, PECR and data sharing with US (and current European court challenges). Also advice from ICO states an opt-in must be deliberate - (ie the user must be opted out of tracking, and must take an action to explicitly opt in). Many LAs may be struggling with this as generally a true honest 'strict opt in' can reduce recorded traffic by 97%. We have struggled with understanding the viability and accuracy of using google or other more privacy centric tracking software.

    Reply
    • Replies to Gavin>

      Comment by Tina Mermiri posted on

      Hi Gavin,

      Thanks for your comment. You can read more about <a href="https://insidegovuk.blog.gov.uk/2022/08/24/how-were-preparing-for-the-migration-to-google-analytics-4/">our thinking about and plans for GA4</a> - as always, we are working closely with our privacy colleagues to ensure all our tracking and analytics efforts are compliant with GDPR and PECR regulations. Accordingly, GA4 does not pose any additional risks/concerns than our current version of Google Analytics, but we have completed a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) and continue to monitor the rulings in Europe to ensure we are building our implementation from a privacy first perspective. As per ICO’s regulations, we only track users that have explicitly consented. Regarding opt-in consent and representativeness of the data, whilst it is hard to quantify properly due to privacy reasons, we have enough confidence in the data to understand trends around user journeys and how we might be able to improve them.

      Thanks,
      Tina

      Reply

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