Data-driven policy within the Municipality of The Hague: an interview with Hedwig Miessen

17 July 2018

Article written by Jurriaan Nagelkerke, Principal Consultant

As if our daily portion of “working with data” wasn’t enough, at Cmotions we are also fascinated by what others in the field of data analysis and data science are doing and what drives them. Triggered by that fascination, on 18 May, Cmotioneers Michaela Legerstee and Jurriaan Nagelkerke visited the imposing Municipal Offices on the Spui in The Hague to meet Hedwig Miessen.


Who is Hedwig Miessen?

Hedwig Miessen is the current Programme Manager of the Urban Data Centre (UDC) at the Municipality of The Hague. The Urban Data Centre is a collaboration between Statistics Netherlands and various municipalities to give data a central role in policy-planning and decision-making. Hedwig previously earned her stripes at the Municipality of The Hague in a variety of roles, acting as a Programme Manager and Project Manager in the field of information management.

But what makes Hedwig stand out the most in our eyes, is her emphasis on connecting people and her strong long-term vision for data and infrastructure. From her background in communications, Hedwig knows better than anyone else how important it is to get people from the full breadth of the organisation on board. Hedwig also has an acute awareness of how using data is set to change society and that the role of governments will, in turn, have to change too.

We are going to take you through our fascinating meeting with Hedwig.


So, Hedwig, getting straight to the point, how did you end up in the wonderful world of data?

My interest in data came about from various things. Back when I was still at university, I studied corporate communications. What I saw happening at that time is, that social media was becoming increasingly important in interpersonal communication. And social media means: huge amounts of data. In addition, my academic background also gives me a strong emphasis on facts and reasoning. And that again means: data. Finally, I am really interested in innovation and so I like to stay up-to-date with things like digitisation.


That makes sense. So, as you say, you didn’t really make a switch as such, you applied your corporate communications degree with a strong emphasis on technology and data. Where does your passion for this Municipality come from?

My first position was a traineeship. Within my traineeship I went through a lot of tests and was given career guidance. Time and again, these showed up what I am good at and what I enjoy. Namely: networking and connecting, continuous learning and being driven by results. And that’s the reason why I chose the Municipality. That might sound odd – being driven by results, in government – but actually in my municipality I really do have a feeling that I can contribute to achieving concrete results. Before I started at the Municipality, I had a similar perception: government is bureaucratic, slow, boring. I could never work in a place like that, or so I thought. But in the context of my previous role where I did projects at large organisations, I came to realise that even there it isn’t necessarily much less bureaucratic. And in that role I often missed out on the bigger picture, the strategic, higher aim. At the Municipality I found I did have that and in fact I had a lot of space to blaze a trail and take action. It suits me really well.


Could you tell us some more about the Urban Data Centre?

One of my earlier projects at the Municipality of The Hague was about ICT services for the city, called “ICT in de Stad”. That programme had already been going on for a while and its budget had been seriously cut back. I was asked to breathe some new life into it. There were several ongoing initiatives in “ICT in de Stad”. These included Smart City and Resilience, as well as the Urban Data Centre. We went through some 50 initiatives in the last council term. The Urban Data Centre was my favourite project. The primary objective of the Urban Data Centre – UDC for short – is to make increased use of data in an innovative way in order to shape more effective and innovative policy on a municipal level. It’s a real Research & Development environment where we, in close collaboration with CBS, make use of both the Municipality’s internal data and also microdata from Statistics Netherlands. Statistics Netherlands has data on small groups of citizens regarding a wide range of social themes such as economic development, criminality, housing and quality of life.

The users of the UDC’s services within the municipality are very diverse. First of all, there are the business directors (at the UDC’s “client” municipality). Each one of Municipality’s core departments has 3 or 4 directors. The Municipality of The Hague has core departments including an Administration Department, a Public Affairs Department, an Urban Management Department, an Education Department, Culture and Welfare, a Social Affairs Department and a Town Planning Department. Each department has its own policy officers, researchers, business intelligence staff, information managers, you name it. Together with these members of staff in the core departments, we formulate the questions that we in the UDC can help to answer, in order to improve their service with the help of data.

We were expecting that after the UDC was first launched, the researchers in these various departments would take charge and say: “That’s our job! We’ll take over.” But that didn’t happen. That certainly isn’t a criticism of the researchers. They play a crucial role in using data for policy issues. However, it is still being done in a very reactive way: there is a question raised and they answer it using the available data. But with the new possibilities offered by the UDC, it is very likely to also change from reactively using data to much more proactively using data to make and improve policy. And that calls for change. That change is what I, as the Programme Manager, try to make happen. Take sustainability. Reflected in the data we can see how urgently the developments in the field of sustainability are happening. And we can also see opportunities for how we can actively manage things on that basis. But there is still not enough being done with it and that is precisely what I am trying to change by putting it on the agenda in the right places and with the right people.


What are your ambitions for the UDC in the next term?

We were just talking about working for the Municipality. One thing that really took time when I started was getting used to the really unique dynamics that go on in a municipality. You are always operating from one council term to the next council term. A new council can make completely different decisions and different people can play a crucial role. The first time, the cycle took me by surprise, now I play the game too. Making sure you get done what matters within the cycle.

With our UDC, we really want to become one of the global hubs for the World Council of City Data. The WCCD provides more than 100 attributes relating to the quality of life for many cities around the world. The WCCD does so in an ISO-certified way. For that reason, these indicators are extremely valuable for the participating municipalities. It enables municipalities to compare nationally and internationally how the city is performing in key areas. The WCCD is therefore making it much easier for municipalities to identify trends and to utilise the data and benchmarks to analyse and evaluate policy. In The Hague we are playing a major role both within the Netherlands as abroad and hope to be able to develop this even further as an ambassador city for the WCCD.


What sort of collaboration is there with other certified municipalities in the Netherlands?

We now have 10 UDCs in the Netherlands, and 6 certified cities, and our collaboration is growing stronger. It really energises me to make those connections myself. If you give me the opportunity, I’ll try and take it global, haha. But seriously: yes, I think we really do learn a great deal from one another. My goal is to reuse methodologies and data models. Every municipality is unique, of course, but at the same time it isn’t all that different here from other cities. So let’s seek collaboration and learn from each other.
At the moment we are putting a huge amount of energy into supporting policy officers with the right data. Policy officers have a key position in policy-making, but they are currently the least plugged into the UDC community. If you don’t get a policy officer on board, that can have a serious negative impact on the potential impact of insights from the data. This is because data can also be terribly threatening to the specialists and subject-matter experts. Data isn’t always right and it has to be interpreted in the right way. The role of the specialists is an essential part of this. Personally I don’t believe that our data can actually lead to better policy without a human perspective. The role of human beings – in this case the policy officers – is crucial to this. Data doesn’t reveal the truth, it gives signals.

One example of this is the homelessness office. From the data we could see a particular set of problems significantly shifting geographically within the area. Without context, that is an alarming thing to see: so what’s going on? Why are we seeing this happening? Until you realise that the homelessness office has moved, which immediately explains the shift. I don’t believe that data can be the decisive factor in policy-making without human perspective. The human validation stage is absolutely indispensable.

So yes: I am very much an ambassador for using data, although specifically for meaningfully using data. That is the reason why we chose Statistics Netherlands as a strategic partner. They have a huge amount of experience in successfully managing data quality and answering the right question with the data. What we need to achieve is to work together with Statistics Netherlands to start setting the agenda for the continued development of the UDC. We increasingly need to incorporate priorities based on policy issues.


What is the UDC’s greatest success to date?

We only started back in September and have already done a lot. But I find it hard to claim the credit for things as we never do things like the UDC alone. There are now two business directors keen to work in an integrated way and look together with researchers from other departments at their own sets of problems. Until recently, that was very unusual. People are now working together on poverty and quality of life issues to improve the standard of analysis, partly thanks to the use of microdata from Statistics Netherlands and our own data.

Poverty and quality of life are important areas within policy in The Hague. Thanks to the poverty research project and research into the demand for domestic support (Social Support Act services), we can see which residents are making use of municipal provisions and how. The combination of microdata from Statistics Netherlands and anonymised municipal data has unlocked new vital insights. Historical data from Statistics Netherlands makes it possible to identify certain parties or cycles over the long term, and that provides insight into strategic opportunities for improvements in policy. In the future we want to use data sources from the UDC for simulation and forecasting. And we are increasingly looking for partnerships on data, both within the municipality and also among municipalities in this field.

This is where the UDC has made a significant contribution towards finding integrated solutions to these important, global themes. I think that really is a great thing.


At a higher level: how do you see society changing with technological development and the importance of data?

I for one have been worried for a long time about how we in the Netherlands manage our underground infrastructure. How we run our network of electrical and network cables, and water, gas and sewers too, is critical. For our safety and stability too. In the event of flooding, electricity outrages and malicious attacks, it is increasingly important for us to have all this infrastructure in good order. Barcelona is a good source of inspiration. I wouldn’t go so far as saying it’s absolutely perfect, but a tunnel system has been installed there. Specifically to prevent problems relating to the city’s safety and resilience. Barcelona’s vision on how important this is to keep society running is what I think is missing here in the Netherlands. I hardly ever hear anything about it, but to my mind that is something that really needs to be addressed. I really want to do my bit to really take action on this, based on a clear vision, and to thereby increase the resilience of our cities and our society. As I see it, building the right infrastructure is too big an issue to be left to business. Government has a crucial role in this.


What about the partnership with citizens on data?

Citizens can make their voices heard about the role data can play in the public sphere. However, it does rely on citizens having the right information and knowledge about the subject.

After all, predicting how citizens behave is challenging. Especially as technology plays an increasingly important role in that. Take TomTom for example: If on the course of your route from A to B something happens to delay your journey, TomTom changes your route plan. But as soon as you adapt your own behaviour and choose an alternative route – and other people travelling simultaneously do the same thing – the conditions have changed again. Do you then grind to a halt once again, but in a different traffic jam? So the route plan needs to take that phenomenon into account too. Technology is becoming increasingly intelligent at handling such challenges, but there are still gaps. I’m particularly talking about ethical considerations. Technology is currently unable to give a proper response to such dilemmas. I think the human role is essential.


You’re a kind of pioneer in getting municipalities to work with data…

My ambition is to help shape the way data is used to improve municipal policies. It is getting better, but we’re not there yet. I’m patiently working on it. Sometimes by writing an article or a book, sometimes by bringing the right councillors together. We are trying to build on that vision together. Especially in partnership with subject-matter experts from various departments who are involved in our projects. And this is something you really need policy-makers to help with. They can incorporate politics into the process.

I still have lots of ideas about how we can keep improving by properly using data in the Municipality, and those ideas are multiplying. That’s lucky, because sometimes people pick out one of your answers and take it without saying where it came from. But I don’t mind. It means that other people believe in your idea too and that it is being acted upon. After all, my core values are sharing, collaborating, educating.


Do you want to know more about this subject? Please contact Jurriaan Nagelkerke using the details below

Jurriaan Nagelkerke, Principal Consultant

+31 6 29 62 00 11

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