UK tech industry urges government to ‘move beyond policy thinking’ and take action on data sharing

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez July 4, 2022 Audio mode
Summary:
The British Government has prioritized data sharing in its recently published National Data Strategy, but trade association techUK is calling for a more focused and coherent approach.

Business man drilling hole to find source of information. Data asset concept of successful data mining, big data and digitization © a-image - Shutterstock
(© a-image - Shutterstock)

The British Government needs to lead on providing an effective data sharing framework for organizations across the UK, or it risks falling behind global competitors and missing out on the benefits of economic growth. The fresh warning and guidance has been issued in a new report by influential trade association techUK, which says that leaders in government departments are not prioritizing data issues. 

For instance, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has said that data access and sharing can create 20 to 50 times more value for the wider economy and help to generate social and economic benefits worth between 1% and 2.5% of GDP. Benefits that would presumably be welcome in the current macroeconomic environment. 

TechUK also notes that whilst the UK was once a leader in debates around open data and data governance, it is now less active and is losing ground to the EU, which is investing heavily in its data infrastructure, capabilities and regulation to enable private and public sector data sharing. 

Without removing barriers and providing a more established framework, the UK could plateau in its efforts to improve data access and not see its ambitions realized, the report states. 

The British Government, to its credit, did make data sharing and governance a priority in its 2020 National Data Strategy, where it outlined two missions to: 1) Unlock the value of data across the economy, and 2) Transform government’s use of data to drive efficiency and improve public services. 

However, with almost two years having passed since the strategy’s publication, techUK states: 

While techUK has welcomed these core Missions of the NDS, current efforts and policy-making that should aim to deliver these benefits, risks losing momentum and undermining the ambitions of the Government.

In this Whitepaper, techUK and its members set out policy recommendations that will help to facilitate a more focused and coherent approach to data sharing and can ensure the value and benefits of increased data use are enjoyed across the entire economy and society.

Recommendations

Research commissioned by the government itself identified six barriers to data sharing between private and third sector organizations, which included: a lack of incentive to share data, regulatory and legal risks, a lack of knowledge, cost of data access, and reputational and ethical risks. 

To overcome these, and to better take advantage of the opportunity of data sharing, techUK has outlined seven core recommendations for the government to consider. These include: 

  • Set up work to facilitate voluntary, trusted, and responsible avenues for private and third sector data sharing 

TechUK states that access to more high-quality data is essential for supporting the UK’s R&D ecosystem and to enable businesses to develop new digital products and services. The report supports measures to encourage voluntary data sharing, where appropriate, across all sectors and industries, and says that the government should develop market mechanisms to deliver trusted avenues for commercial data sharing arrangements. 

It adds that regulators will need to find a balance between competing priorities of boosting competition in digital markets through increased data sharing, while not undermining privacy and data protection standards. 

TechUK says that the government needs to “move beyond policy thinking” and begin to implement interventions, including making progress on legislation. 

  • Ensure ethical considerations underpin the sharing of data

The report says ethical concerns should underpin the use of all data, especially in circumstances where risks to privacy or other fundamental rights are identified. TechUK adds that “public trust is vital in upholding the frameworks and systems in place to facilitate the responsible use of data, such as the data protection regime”. 

  • Deliver a more joined-up National Data Strategy

TechUK argues that whilst the government has done well to outline its core missions in that National Data Strategy, it has not followed through with detail on how certain missions will be achieved. For example, the Central Digital and Data Office’s plans to use data to drive efficiency and improve public services (Mission 3) have not been clearly laid out for stakeholders to understand. The report states: 

A lack of understanding on how Mission 3 is being taken forward is leading to concerns that a data strategy is emerging which appears disjointed, with Mission 3 activities being inaccessible by industry.

  • Outline a clear plan for the continued opening up of Government and public sector data sets

The trade association’s members have long called for the opening up of key government datasets, which could support the development of new products and services. It cites how Transport for London (TfL) released real-time feeds of journey data, which led to new organizations being formed and better outcomes for passengers. 

The report argues: 

To encourage more success stories, government must consult with industry and organisations to better understand which data sets could unlock the most value if opened up and outline a clear plan on how this will be put into action. For example, in the case of digital identity solutions, access to databases which include marriage registry, births and deaths registries, the passport register, and land registry entry would be most useful.

  • Collaborate with industry to understand challenges related to data quality and develop a set of industry-driven standards to address these barriers

The report says that there is a key role for standards to play in addressing barriers to data sharing, which are caused by poor data quality or a lack of consistency in how data is collected and stored. The government has said that it will map types of data standards, identify any gaps and will support the implementation of good data standards in priority sectors or applications. 

But techUK adds: 

However, government must ensure that the defining of common standards is industry-driven and part of a partnership approach involving both large and small industry players, and other stakeholders.

Government should work with industry and standards bodies, such as the British Standards Institution (BSI), both in the UK and internationally to promote the development of standard formats and good practices so that quality and compatibility is installed as a basic principle of data collection. It is vital that the right balance of voices is included and involved in the development, drafting, and testing of any technical standards.

  • Invest in sufficient resources to map regional data ecosystems and set benchmarks for the gathering of local government data

TechUK has said that for the UK to “truly become digitally driven” it is important to understand and assess the impact that technology is having on a particular locality - where data is a key part in helping to deliver this picture. The report notes: 

This is vital as a one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate for all nations and regions, and digital policy must reflect local experiences and priorities. For example, the needs and solutions to help drive digital adoption between London and North Yorkshire differ significantly.

It is essential for government to simultaneously acknowledge nuances and differences by geography, while retaining an overall national benchmark which will enable innovation, generate buy-in, demonstrate success stories, and highlight where projects have been unsuccessful. Understanding the full digital landscape is also a way of making the case for investing in regional digital economies as part of the Levelling Up Agenda.

As such, the trade association is calling on government to set a minimum benchmark for the gathering of local government data, rather than a ceiling to ensure that no region is left behind. Developing data capture, transparency and tracking standards that is fit for purpose in each locality should also be a priority. 

  • Narrow the data skills gap and combat the skills shortage

Finally, techUK acknowledges that data quality and access are only one part of this problem for government - as the shortage of people that work in data is limiting the quantity and quality of data driven activities. This skills shortage is the key barrier to the UK building on its data opportunity. 

The report argues: 

Data skills are no longer limited to digital and tech roles but are nearly universal requirements across all sectors and skill levels today. To address this skills shortage, government must invest in the training, upskilling, and reskilling of the workforce.

Both industry and Government need to emphasise the development of lifelong learning to prepare the workforce for the technological changes to come. 

The UK’s digital and data skills shortage must be tackled at all levels of education including secondary, higher, further, adult, vocational (such as apprenticeships and T-levels), and upskilling within industry.

My take

It’s worth remembering that techUK is coming from a position of largely representing the private sector, which has an incentive to get access to more data - including across the public sector. Privacy and protections are key, as if trust is lost with the public, then any data ambitions could be set back significantly. Equally, all of this is happening against a backdrop of the government seeking to reform the country’s data protection laws - where we are still waiting for greater clarity on what that will look like in practice. 

But it’s undeniable that the UK was once a leader in this space and it now feels like momentum has been lost, with the current administration dealing with other conflicting priorities. Data access and use has been spoken about for years across Whitehall, with a number of grand plans seemingly disappearing and then being rebooted with a new brand. What we need is measurable action and practical guidance. 

But the COVID-19 pandemic showed how the government, when incentivised, can quickly implement data programmes that are hugely beneficial and exciting. That enthusiasm for data use in the public sector needs to be capitalised on now, and taken forward in to areas beyond public health. 

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