UK government finally launches National Data Strategy

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez September 9, 2020
The National Data Strategy has been in the pipeline for years and will see a £2.6m project to address barriers to data sharing.

An image of Houses of Parliament

Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden today finally launched the UK's National Data Strategy, having initially been announced more than two years ago. The strategy also reiterates the government's intention to hire a Chief Data Officer, a role which also has been years in the making.

The strategy follows the recent announcement that control over data would be handed back over to the Cabinet Office, after a short stint with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. It is thought that the Prime Minister's controversial chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, is keen to push through an overhaul of how data is used across the public sector.

All of this should be considered within the context of Brexit and the government's possibilities when it comes to shaping the future of the British economy. In fact, the National Data Strategy documentation cites that the government aims to "take advantage of being an independent sovereign nation to maximise strengths domestically" and that it will seek to "influence the global approach to data sharing and use".

Ahead of his speech at London tech Week's Global Leaders Innovation Summit, Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden said:

Our response to coronavirus has shown just how much we can achieve when we can share high-quality data quickly, efficiently and ethically. I don't intend to let that lesson go to waste.

Our new National Data Strategy will maintain the high watermark of data use set during the pandemic - freeing up businesses, government and organisations to innovate, experiment and drive a new era of growth.

I am absolutely clear that data and data use are opportunities to be embraced, rather than a threat to be guarded against.

It aims to make sure British businesses are in a position to make the most of the digital revolution over the years and decades to come, help us use data to improve people's lives, and position the UK as a global champion of data use.

Dowden's reference to using data to tackle Coronavirus will likely raise a few eyebrows given how the UK compares internationally when it comes to the number of cases and deaths. However, data has been used by health and local authorities to monitor the spread of the virus and help predict where the NHS is likely to face strain first.

Equally, during the national lockdown data was shared with supermarkets to help get food to the most vulnerable and keep supermarket shelves stocked.

The details

The government said today that the National Data Strategy will put data at the heart of the country's recovery from the pandemic so that companies and organisations can use it to "drive digital transformation, innovation and boost growth across the economy.

The document outlines five key ‘missions' the government will take to capitalise on the opportunities data offers. These include:

  • Plans for 500 analysts to be trained up in data and data science across the public sector by 2021.
  • Plans for a new Government Chief Data Officer to lead a whole-government approach to transforming government's use of data to drive efficiency and improve public services.
  • Plans to introduce primary legislation to boost participation in Smart
  • Data initiatives, which can give people the power to use their own data to find better tariffs in areas such as telecoms, energy and pensions.
  • A new £2.6m project to address current barriers to data sharing and support innovation to detect online harms.

Ten new ‘Innovation Fellowships' to support digital transformation across government have also been announced, with successful applications working closely with the No. 10 Data Science team and Government Digital Service networks.

According to the details, the government is actively seeking to develop a policy framework to determine what interventions are needed to "unlock the value of data across the economy".

It is seeking to "overhaul" the way data is used across the public sector and work will be carried out to change the way that data is managed, used and shared internally and with wider public sector organisations, to create an "ethical, joined up and interoperable data infrastructure".

It's worth noting that previous attempts to ‘overhaul' data across government - of which there have been many - have typically been well intentioned, but not delivered many meaningful results. Whether or not Dominic Cummings' focus on data use will drive real change - and what that looks like - remains to be seen.

The new Government Chief Data Officer (when found) will oversee the Government Digital Service and lead the Digital, Data and Technology function. The lucky/brave candidate will be responsible for "shaping and delivering the government's innovation and transformation strategies to improve capability and ensure the government can better leverage design and deliver citizen-centric services".

My take

This document has been years in the making and it still isn't the finished product. The government has launched today's strategy alongside a consultation to "help shape the core principles of the strategy". So there will be more to come, depending on the outcomes of that consultation.

There will also likely be a mixed reaction to the strategy. Whilst on the one hand it is a welcome step in the right direction and the top level ambitions appear admirable, there will also be caution about what this means in the long-run for how citizen data is used and to what end.

How data is used in government does need overhauling, as we've outlined many times before. There's only so far pretty looking digital services can take you, without thinking about the underlying information that feeds them - silos and empires still dominate Whitehall. However, as citizens are becoming all too aware of in 2020, data is valuable and can be used for nefarious purposes.

We need transparency, controls and the ability to intervene before it's too late. An ethical framework and approach should be front and centre of this and I hope we will be hearing more about that in the near future.

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