The UK government needs to take advantage of data’s golden age

The UK is built on data. Megatons of it. Just think of patient data on the NHS, the driving records stored at the DVLA or the swathes of National Insurance files stored away at the Department for Work and Pensions.

As the Government continues on its journey towards digitalisation, and the sheer amount of its citizen’s data increases over the coming years, it’s going to be important that it is managed correctly.

Just because departments up and down Whitehall (and beyond) use data each and every day, does not mean that its always utilised effectively.

Abandoned data

In this day and age of flash apps and fancy SaaS applications, it’s easy to be wowed by a data platform with a shiny front end. While usability is, of course a very important feature the major role of a platform, particularly at government level, include data quality, integration, integrity, governance, provenance and security.

>See also: The UK Government’s Transformation Strategy

Think about all the data Transport for London (TfL) is sitting on. Millions of passengers are freely giving TfL details of where they are tapping in and out and when.

They fail to use this data in any useful of meaningful ways, bar stating the obvious “this station’s busiest times are 8.30 to 8:45 AM, Mondays to Fridays”.

For the most part, a lot of government data has been used for specific business applications – quite often ending up in internal reports, that don’t go much further.

This has created silos of data across government, meaning potentially valuable data has been left unused. In other words, it’s basically rotting away in proprietary applications, personal network drives, spreadsheets, databases and emails.

The government is also a major culprit of hoarding the same data over and over again. There are countless amounts of replicated information sitting in different departments.

Take for example the list of countries that the UK recognises. Both the Foreign Office and HMRC curate and manage separate data lists, therefore, duplicating on efforts.

It’s obvious to say that a lot of money would be saved if this process was streamlined. More importantly, making this data smarter would enable the delivery of streamlined and efficient services by other departments and third sector as well.

>See also: The digital transformation of the UK public sector

But being data-driven isn’t just about delivering efficiencies. It’s about making government smarter. For instance, the data held on EU migration doesn’t exist because it’s not captured.

Bizarrely, what insight is known comes from a series of inconsistent questions asked at different points of entry that are then pulled out. In other words, the data is not reliable and consistent.

However, with the right data, policies can be based and evidenced in data, significantly improving their real-world usage and impact.

A technology-driven approach alone cannot deliver data-driven government

In recent years, to break down these data silos and use information more productively, departments have adopted a technology-driven approach.

The aim here is to build multiple interfaces between software and systems in order to make data more accessible.

Whilst this has certainly eased the data burden, it has done little to solve fundamental challenges such as quality, formats, or to quickly search, find and apply the right data for the right task. Crucially, and most importantly, it does little to apply a consistent approach to data.

And that’s the crux of the challenge at hand. For the power and potential of a data-driven government to become a reality, there needs to be real ownership and leadership around data. Something a technology-driven approach is not capable of delivering.

>See also: The Government’s Transformation Strategy: what enterprises can learn

Responsive technology equals responsive services. Platforms such as Amazon Web Services, Google and Microsoft Azure are changing government perceptions about how quickly services can be deployed, scaled, supported and delivered. Shortening the “time to value” and enabling the services to evolve rapidly.

No doubt about it, these platforms, coupled with open source and open standards-based technologies are the future. They promote an ecosystem where the focus is on service, usability and agility; not locking you into one way of thinking. They help to create a common platform.

By moving towards an open platform, the government can be at the heart of an open data movement that benefits commerce, giving an opportunity for new companies to open and flourish.

Take the Postal Address File. Whilst the UK has relinquished this information to a private company, the US released high quality, machine readable postal address data.

The Postal Address File in America spawned a niche industry, which was built purely using open information as its foundation. Companies have been able to expand their services to cater for this industry or fill a newly created hole, both of which are undeniably positive.

The answer to truly data-driven government

To become a data-driven entity, the government needs to embrace an all-encompassing data management strategy (DMS). The key difference between this and a technology strategy is that under a DMS, the government can improve the reliability, credibility, quality and integration of data through the following:

  • Leadership
  • Ownership
  • Value
  • Availability and accessibility
  • Trust
  • Skills
  • Innovation

In other words, it makes data meaningful.

>See also: UK government pledge: superfast 5G mobile networks

In data terms, people are living in a golden age. The amount of information available to the government is exciting and has the potential to do a lot of good, as well as streamline processes and make millions of lives easier. However, it’s fair to say, that it is not being utilised it to its full effect.

This needs to change. A more streamlined, effective data management process implemented across all levels of government is needed. Let’s put those megatons to work.


Sourced by Aingaran Pillai, CEO and founder at Zaizi

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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...

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