The politics of data in government

Derk van Ogtrop Profile picture for user Derk van Ogtrop June 9, 2022
Derk van Ogtrop, Partner Success Director at Confluent, discusses how data in motion may be a solution for governments that are looking to extract their data from siloed legacy applications.

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(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay )

The UK-Singapore Digital Economy Agreement (DEA), which was published in March, is described by officials as the world’s “most innovative trade agreement”.

The trade deal – with a strong emphasis on data and data sharing in a modern digital world – follows similar agreements with Japan and Australia with reports of other agreements in the pipeline.

On its own, it may not have been enough to knock some other geopolitical events off the front pages. But for those of us with more than a passing interest in such matters, it is yet more evidence of the Government’s direction of travel.

A new generation of data-centric trade agreements

In particular, the deal is symbolic since it’s between the UK – with a heritage of legacy data storage solutions – and Singapore, which is widely regarded as being at the forefront of embracing a modern, data-driven society.

The document may have been short on detail, but one section entitled Open Government Information offers a glimpse of how things might develop.

It reads: 

Both new and existing data-driven businesses thrive from having access to publicly available government information to offer innovative new services, such as Citymapper, to consumers.

For those of us who work in this area, it’s a sign that the UK Government is not only serious about data, it’s also open to explore different technical solutions as well. While allowing businesses to have “access to publicly available government information” may sound easy on paper, it’s not without its challenges.  

Accessing Government-held data has its own challenges

For data-centric agreements to work, it almost certainly means providing access to data that sits in hard-to-reach, difficult-to-extract silos. To make things more difficult, this information may come from different data silos within different public sector organizations each built on their own operating platforms to their own specifications.

When they were first created, these platforms were primarily designed to store information safely rather than act as a digital data-sharing ecosystem. By building data warehouses in-house, on-prem and to strict guidelines, Governments were able to control and secure data which, quite rightly, they needed to protect.  

However, these large monoliths — that were often developed decades ago — were not built with modern citizen-driven experiences in mind.

Which is why governments across the world are looking at new technologies and approaches – some of which are already being used by businesses to transform their own operations – to help link these isolated data pools.

Decoupling information from legacy systems

In short, governments are looking to decouple their data from rigid applications to make the most of the vast amounts of stored information.

One way to overcome the technical issues of legacy systems is to adopt an approach called data in motion which helps to abstract data from siloed legacy datastores that are often proprietary and difficult to connect with siloed legacy systems. This allows governments to then easily connect with data in a low code/no code manner and share information between public sector organizations. It also enables third party access, as mentioned in the Singapore DEA, to help provide public services.

One way of considering this is to imagine data in motion as a central nervous system in a living organism — one that ties together all the independent parts of the body into a coherent whole that can react and respond intelligently in real time.

It’s about connecting all the different data stores — in this case the data housed by Government departments and public sector organizations — into a coherent whole and helping to enable intelligent applications.

Data in motion

Creating a central nervous system to connect isolated silos, can enable the kind of customer experiences and intelligent real-time operational systems that citizens expect of their governments.

This could include providing public information that is available in real-time, such as live changes to transport timetables that could be caused by delays, breakdowns, or hold-ups. The same could be true in the event of a security threat or major incident. What’s critical is the responsiveness  that can be provided by real-time continuous processing generated “in the moment”.  

But the technical challenges for governments and their suppliers are just one issue that needs to be addressed.

While there may be plenty of enthusiasm to make data freely available to provide up-to-the-second travel information, giving governments the green light to share personal information such as financial status or health may not be quite so easy.

Data – who owns it, who’s allowed to use it and how it’s used – could become a political hot potato in the future. The consensus among data professionals is that a heavy-handed approach to implementing data-back projects, such as in healthcare, could backfire and lead to long delays brought on by complex legal challenges. So, government’s need to build trust, make a strong and open case for the use of data, and convince people of the benefits.

Which is why it always helps to learn from the experience of others. And this brings us neatly back to Singapore, which is rightly held as a shining example of how technology can be used to free up locked-in data to provide government services to citizens quickly and efficiently.

Its vision for a “digital-first Singapore” is one where the three pillars of its ‘Smart Nation’ — digital government, a digital economy, and a digital society — can be used to bring a new way to access and use services.

And its experiences in achieving that around technology, governance, and trust could prove invaluable for Governments everywhere as they begin their own data-based policies.

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