Last reviewed 16 October 2020

The Government believes data should be put to work across the economy to improve export performance, business efficiency, public services and the environment. The new National Data Strategy is designed to open up digital information’s full potential. Jon Herbert reports.

Data is now ubiquitous, and crucial to successful decision-making in critical areas like energy investment, sourcing and competitive supply. The challenge, in times of economic stress, is using it effectively.

Which is why the Government is launching a new strategy to “kickstart a data revolution across the UK”.

The aim of the National Data Strategy is to help businesses and individuals exploit the UK’s growing data resources to drive growth, boost innovation, create new jobs and improve public services.

This would put data at the heart of a sustainable UK post-pandemic recovery.

However, by empowering companies, organisations and individuals, it hopes to provoke a full digital transformation with innovative technologies and services, plus a sharp growth uptick in all sectors.

Launching a consultation to help shape the final strategy, Oliver Dowden, the Government’s Digital Secretary since February 2020, is keen to note that Covid-19 shows very clearly what sharing high-quality data quickly, efficiently and ethically can achieve.

Learning for the future from the recent past

Adding that it would be wrong for “that lesson to go to waste”, he expects the National Data Strategy to “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”.

As a precedent for the future, data has been used to monitor Covid-19’s spread and predict strains on ventilators, beds or staff availability. It has also been vital in keeping supermarket shelves stocked, the home delivery of groceries and controlling supply chains.

The goal for the years and even decades ahead will now be “to improve people’s lives and position the UK as a global champion of data use”, Dowden says.

A new Government Chief Data Officer will also join the Government Digital Service to direct its Digital, Data and Technology activities towards creating “citizen-centric services that enhance our reputation as the world’s most digitally advanced government”.

Questions and missions

To harness data’s full potential, the new strategy will ask fundamental questions about what data should and should not be available within a regulatory regime designed not to hamper smaller businesses but support responsible innovation.

Capitalising on the Government’s ambition to use data’s full potential to drive a “thriving, fast-growing digital sector”, the strategy includes five priority missions.

  1. To unlock the value of data across the economy.

  2. To secure a pro-growth trusted national data framework.

  3. To transform Government data use to raise efficiency and improve public services.

  4. To ensure the security and resilience of infrastructure on which data depends.

  5. To champion the international flow of data.

Why data is important

Official statistics show that the UK is already a leading digital nation with estimated data-enabled service exports worth £243 billion in 2019, which is 75% of total service exports. Globally, the UK is second only to the USA and China in technology sector venture capital investments.

McKinsey noted in 2019 that international, fast-growing companies rely more on data-driven practices than slower-growing companies.

Which is why digitally generated data is of increasing importance not only to commercial and social daily decision-making but also in helping businesses make better long-term decisions in investment, supply sourcing, operational efficiency and minimising carbon footprints.

Infrastructure data

One important data role is in the construction, operation and development of sustainable infrastructure and transport systems where waste, pollution, poor energy use, plus housing, poverty and social problems, are live issues.

Community services, quality of life, productivity, inward investment and stable employment often depend on the physical infrastructure of tunnels, bridges, roads, rail, buildings and utilities.

In turn, to do their job properly, these must be robust, resilient and able to adapt to major changes such as natural disasters and climate change. At the same time, costs and carbon footprints must be kept low.

This means being “smart” and using emerging sensor and data management technologies to continuously monitor the health, ageing rate and remaining design life of infrastructure assets to maximise their resilience and minimise failure risks.

Modern sensor technologies producing a flow of smart data are increasingly linked to a whole-life design approach where commissioning, construction, use, and eventual decommissioning are integrated with a minimum use of materials, energy and labour.

How the new strategy will work

The policy framework has been developed to identify how the economic value of data can be unlocked while leveraging existing business, government and social strengths.

Public sector data use in particular will be overhauled and linked to a work programme designed to transform data management, data use and how data is shared with public sectors bodies to create an “ethical, joined up and interoperable data infrastructure”.

To achieve this, specific actions the Government is planning include:

  • training 500 public sector data and data science analysts by 2021

  • a new Government Chief Data Officer to lead a whole-government approach for transforming data use to improve efficiency and public services

  • introducing primary legislation to boost participation in Smart Data initiatives that give people powers to use their own data to find better telecoms, energy and pensions options

  • a £2.6 million project to cut data sharing barriers and support innovations to detect online harm.

Next generation high quality data skills

Several steps are being taken to improve skills training.

These include examining new ways of giving undergraduate students data skills that complement existing maths and computing curriculums, plus developing digital skills T-Levels.

Downing Street will also offer, from April 2021, some 10 Innovation Fellowships annually to attract “world-class tech talent to the heart of Government” that could lead to “senior digital and technology roles in Government”.

In addition, the Government Office for Science’s ”The Future of Citizen Data Systems” report is being published alongside the National Data Strategy.

This will consider different approaches to international governance, control and citizen data use, how regional data system variations affect developments in the economy, security and society, plus factors that might drive future changes.

More data control under new laws

New Smart Data laws will soon allow consumers and small-and-medium sized businesses to simplify and share data securely with other data-using third parties.

Meanwhile, primary legislation will improve competition by giving people more powers to select better tariffs and encourage disruptors in all market sectors ? lower prices could potentially save £18 billion annually.

The changes will also see more sectors, such as broadband, using smart data to increase both competition and innovation, with potential Government powers to involve industry in smart data initiatives.

Conclusion

Data, and specifically digital data, is the lifeblood of the modern online economy, and in particular at this point, a planned recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

The National Data Strategy is being introduced to drive growth, boost innovation, create new jobs and improve public services.

The Government says the enormous volume of commercial and personal data now available should be put to work safely by individual consumers, citizens and companies to improve business productivity, increase export activity and improve community services. Data is also important in the monitoring, maintenance and efficiency of essential economic infrastructure.