1. Start with clear user need and public benefit

This explains how to implement principle 1 of the Data Ethics Framework for the public sector.

Before you start working with data, you must consider the user need and expected public benefit. Understanding this is fundamental to making sure you take the right approach. Having a clear user need means that you know what problem you are trying to solve, even if you don’t yet know what the solution is or even the path to the solution. Considering the Data Ethics Principles holistically should help you make a decision on whether your approach is delivering public benefit.

How data can help meet user needs

Teams in the public sector must clearly define user needs to make sure:

A range of public sector user needs which can be met using data analysis are:

  • running and improving services
  • building new services
  • trialling new processes for internal operations
  • testing existing and new policies

For these needs, using data can:

  • help you identify themes in large volumes of text
  • predict what will happen
  • automatically categorise stuff
  • spot something unusual
  • show you how things are connected to each other
  • spot patterns in large volumes of data
  • spot geographic patterns in services or data

Often projects involving data analysis are requested by non-practitioners - people with an ill-defined problem they would like to understand better. Reframing their request as a user need will help you understand what they’re asking for and why, or expose what you don’t know yet.

Writing your user needs

Writing out the needs you’ve identified can help make sure the whole team understands the project objective. User needs are usually written following a set format.


As a …

I need to …

So that I can …

Your user need should not focus on a specific technology, data analysis technique, or dataset. If there’s more than one, prioritise the needs to help your project focus on the most important thing. Example user needs

Here are some examples of real user needs:

As a user researcher working in the Government Digital Service

I want to understand if natural language processing can support user research

So that I can analyse research findings more efficiently


As a policy expert at the Department for Education

I need to identify schools with maintenance issues

So that I can understand the effect of school investment patterns on maintenance


As a data analyst working in a fire and rescue service

I need to identify homes which are likely to not have a smoke alarm fitted

So that I can advise how to prioritise fire safety checks

Determining the public benefit

When determining user needs, public servants must also be confident they are acting in the public benefit. Defining public benefit means demonstrating that:

  • your approach offers value for money
  • the appropriate governance and decision-making oversight exist to ensure success of the project
  • potential risks or negative consequences have been weighed up against the risk in not proceeding
  • there is supporting evidence for each of the above

Determining the public benefit is crucial for any project, but is particularly important before any large expenditure. HM Treasury provides a series of guidance to aid public servants:

  • the Green Book provides guidance for how to achieve transparent, objective and evidence-based advice for decision making in Government
  • Managing public money explains how public servants can ensure value for money for citizens, while maintaining transparency and accountability

Evidence that you’ve understood the problem correctly

Data scientists and policy professionals should work together to make sure everyone involved understands:

  • the overall problem you’re trying to solve
  • who the users of this data process or analysis are
  • what needs they have

Try these things to help you better understand the problem:

Having a clearly defined user need will determine the project approach.

You should work through the Data Ethics Framework principles 2 through 7 to help you decide what tools are most appropriate and proportionate for meeting your user need.

Published 13 June 2018