Statistical Data Analysis

UK: Act fast to make open data leadership market dominance

The following is a contributed article by Nick Lambert, Chief Operating Officer at MaidSafe, a Scottish open source technology company that is “attempting to decentralise the internet and shift control of data away from large corporates, giving privacy, security and freedom back to its users”. 


The UK public sector is awash with an unprecedented amount of statistics, reports and targets regarding the use of IT. Frankly, it is difficult to know what is valid and determine where progress is being made. Take the use of open data: information from Government sources that are enabling developers to design new services.  According to sources such as the Open Data Index and Open Data Barometer, the UK leads most of the world in this field. 

There are a number of positive examples repeatedly referenced, such as Transport for London, which controls public transit in the capital, and weather forecaster the Met Office. Esteemed firms such as Deloitte and McKinsey have estimated the huge revenue opportunities to be generated from opening up access to data. For once, the UK can rightly say that it has the potential to become a world leader in this field and the Government has been making all the right noises

Yet, as with every technology advancement, we know leadership can be fleeting if the advantage isn’t pressed home. If you like, Britain has built the minimum viable product (MVP) of open data applications and now it needs to turn that into an industry. Without wanting to sound too brash and entrepreneurial, we have to come up with a plan to turn our leadership into market dominance.

There are a number of core issues to be addressed, which have been discussed ad nauseum. Everything from data privacy to data consistency, quality and accuracy – all very important and relevant, but I believe they are matters that can be dealt with if the UK appoints a central authority to oversee data, particularly from the public sector. The bigger challenge - and opportunity - is data sharing. There will always be grey areas, especially when commercial entities are involved and cannot see the commercial model for sharing. However, particularly in the public sector, there is a huge opportunity to demonstrate the impact and benefit of open collaboration.

The Government has a critical role to play, not just because it is probably the owner of the largest and richest data set. Given the sensitivity around some of the data sets it protects Government can create models and standards for opening up access, which could be adopted by the wider commercial sector.  The role the Government has played to date shows how important it is to stimulate the commercialisation of the open data sector. 

My worry – despite the positive noises from Central Government – is that taking open data to the next stage could easily fall into the “too hard” bracket. We all know the historical complexity and autonomous nature of individual Government departments - the former head of the GDS described them as, “a warring band of tribal bureaucrats”. More challenging is the fact that public-sector IT is littered with the debris of previous attempts to integrate data sets. This has created a culture of chronic risk aversion which requires leadership from the top of Government to break.

The formation of the Government Digital Service (GDS) and talk of the Government-as-a-Service (GaaS) strategy was exactly the right way to begin that process. It attempted to enshrine a non-partisan approach to cross departmental services but the high-profile departures from GDS in the last year underline just how hard a task it has been to drive such co-operation.

It is crucial the Government addresses this point, particularly with regards its open data strategy. As mentioned earlier, one crack in the UK’s leadership has been the recent news of other nations giving ownership of data to an overseeing body. This body is responsible for addressing the complex, but fundamental issues such as data consistency and quality. This is exactly the sort of role the GDS or – as others have suggested - the Office for National Statistics could play.

This is so important, because now we have to move beyond the proof-of-concept phase to the hard work of commercialising our lead in innovation. Take the National Health Service: there is no better example of how open data could make a fundamental difference. As a project in Trafford showed, the opening up of access to data enabled the collation of information from multiple public sector sources, to identify where defibrillators should be placed to address incidents of heart attacks. While it would be an overstatement to say that open data alone saves lives, the benefits of shared data have to outweigh concerns. Surely it is time to heed Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s plea for greater access to clinical data in order to find ways to improve the health and wellbeing of more people.

I recognise the understandable anxiety, but it is also important to allow a degree of failure. The recent Science and Technology Select Committee report featured some fairly damning criticism of the lack of progress from Dame Fiona Caldicott, National Data Guardian for Health and Care, who was “very disappointed … to find that the culture in the NHS of sharing information had not moved in the way we hoped”.

It is time to change that, particularly by adopting a “fail fast, learn quickly” approach. Lives are at stake in certain situations in the NHS but it is possible to identify pilots, such as Trafford, where data from multiple public-sector sources can be integrated to provide huge benefits. 

We have to avoid the fears of litigation that have seeped into the public sector in the last 10 years as this is the polar opposite of driving innovation. We have to celebrate failure in the public sector, within reason, to encourage a culture where collaboration is seen as more important than department tribalism. 

Yes, the NHS has been burnt before – one only mentions “” in hushed whispers around Whitehall. I’m sure civil servants also only have to look across at the Department of Work and Pension’s Universal Credit saga to be put off ambitious projects. This is bad for open data and bad for the UK economy. We should be measuring civil servants on collaboration, not on risk avoidance. 

It is clear there is significant work to do, but we must have patience to see it through – and the willingness to fail. It is positive that the Wachter Review has been set up but please let it not be like one of the cunning tricks of Sir Humphrey Appleby in the TV comedy Yes, Minister. There is nothing less effective than a committee that deliberates while our competitive advantage dies on the vine. The NHS is a unique service, which we can be proud of, and has the potential – in relation to open data – to turn our current leadership into huge market opportunities. If we can crack how to open up access to some of the most sensitive data sets without compromising privacy then the UK has the opportunity to define the next generation of health applications. 


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