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Laurie Clarke


The UK’s national data strategy is still missing in action  

The grand unveiling of the UK’s National Data Strategy, first announced in June 2018, will be delayed until later in 2020 according to Gaia Marcus, head of data strategy at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), speaking at a policy conference in London yesterday. 

A draft of the strategy was billed for late 2019, but due to delays that Marcus attributed to the UK’s EU exit and December’s snap election, it will now be released at some point in 2020 instead. 

The strategy’s aim is to “drive the collective vision that will support the UK to build a world-leading data economy”, according to the UK government website. But Marcus failed to provide the meat – or even bones – of what exactly that vision is, and what problems the strategy aims to address. 

“In the Middle Ages, when the team was focusing on the work, I commissioned evidence to actually understand that, if we all agreed that the national data strategy is the solution to another problem – what is that problem?” Marcus said. However, she was unclear on exactly what ‘problem’ this work, carried out by the Policy Lab, identified, leaving the whole purpose of the national data strategy somewhat ill-defined. 

Despite the specific aims remaining woolly, the data strategy will supposedly be tailored to the three separate domains of people, the economy and government. 

Marcus addressed these areas individually: “We asked how one uses a data strategy to ensure that everyone can participate in a data-driven economy, to ensure that people know the trade-offs: were people less worried about what happens to their data within private companies than publicly held companies? Do they know the exchange they’re making?

“We asked for the economy, as is highlighted through the work resulting from the Furnham review, how do we ensure that the data driven economy is one in which all businesses nonprofits can participate? How do we ensure that we are levelling up – as I think we now say – the UK PLC as a whole, to take advantage of the data economy?  

“And the government: how do we ensure that government is doing the right things with the data that it holds – always publicly held data, not public sector data? How do we ensure that government is keeping up to date, that it has access to the right skills and expertise to actually use the data that it holds, and how to ensure that government is setting the right conditions for data use across the economy?” 

As if that wasn’t broad enough, the department’s website defines the data falling under the remit of the strategy as such: “The term ‘data’ is intended to be understood broadly and refers to all kinds of data unless otherwise specified – for example, covering both personal and non-personal data, information that is stored both digitally and non-digitally, and data used for various purposes, e.g. data about people, data about performance, government data, content data and so on.”

The approach thus far has taken the form of a two phase consultation. The first phase (ran over the summer and autumn of 2019) focused on building evidence through an open call for submissions in the form of research reports, literature and case studies (now closed). 

In a separate prong, Marcus’ team has held over 20 roundtables with around 250 organisations.

The next phase – halted temporarily around election time – will focus on what the long term vision of the strategy should look like – projecting forward to 2030. This is taking the form of roundtables held with the public. 

One of these took place in Newcastle, Friday 31 October, but the rest have been postponed. Marcus said it involved getting members of the public to think about the kind of trade-offs involved in data use. 

“What is the daily news they want to be reading in 10 years time given data? If they are asked to describe the ‘data superhero’ that describes how they want data to be dealt with by the UK PLC, what does that look like?” she said. 

Although the UK government has been commended for its use of open data, it falls short on a number of other areas highlighted in a 2019 paper by the National Audit Office. 

In July 2019, eleven organisations including the Institute for Government, the Open Data Institute, and the Open Knowledge Foundation wrote an open letter urging culture secretary at the time, Jeremy Wright, not to miss the opportunity that the national data strategy affords. It beseeched him to seize the opportunity to transform the country’s use of data and improve the quality of public services. 

Current secretary Oliver Dowden expressed his own appetite for data at the Enders Media and Telecoms Conference yesterday: “We have an opportunity as we leave the EU to be an unashamedly pro-tech nation, and unleash all the innovation and enterprise that emerging technologies can provide.

“And this includes data, which is the beating heart of any digital economy.”

But with the practical aims of the national data strategy still yet to be elucidated, it’s a danger it will be too large, amorphous and unwieldy to achieve anything of substance.