Why we need to unlock the value of public sector data

Recognition of data’s value as a tool for progress in business applications, science and academia is accelerating almost as fast as the proliferation of data itself. PwC research suggests that 90% of all data that exists on the internet was generated in the past two years; a cool 2.5 quintillion bytes a day. Businesses are a huge contributor to this. From customer insights to competitive intelligence, product development to employee profiling, data has huge potential to help organisations understand themselves and facilitate positive change – so much so that guidance on how to analyse, deal with and reap the benefits of data is now formally being made part of public policy.

Last year, the UK government published its National Data Strategy, which sets out how it intends to responsibly unlock the full potential and value of data for the benefit of the nation. The government’s vision is to make the UK “the world’s number one data destination” and to get there they have identified four interconnected pillars: data foundations, skills, data availability and responsible data use.

The strategy places data at the heart of the UK’s recovery from the pandemic, so organisations can use it to accelerate digital transformation, innovate and boost growth across the economy. In his foreword to the National Data Strategy, Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden said: “Data is now the driving force of the world’s modern economies. It fuels innovation in businesses large and small and has been a lifeline during the global coronavirus pandemic.”

However, it’s not enough just to make bold statements and propose a strategy. What must follow is a carefully managed roll out of the strategy, supported by robust leadership. The four strategic pillars laid out in the government’s plans offer a potential framework for this, facilitating opportunities to unlock the full potential of public sector data in the UK.

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A deep dive into the four pillars

1. Data foundations – in order to reap maximum benefits, it’s important that data is formatted in a formalised and consistent way, ensuring that all information is good quality, fit for purpose and easy to use. Data infrastructure also needs to be modern, easy to navigate and flexible enough to adapt to any future changes, improvements or upgrades.

However, audits have revealed large gaps in how data is organised, managed and stored. This poor data governance leads to inefficiencies, overspending and a lack of accountability that can lead to data loss and mishandled information. In turn, this can have a big impact on people’s lives, for example, missed government support for vulnerable people at the beginning of the pandemic. But, by improving the quality of public sector data and the infrastructure that underpins it, it can be used more effectively, and drive better insights and outcomes from its use.

2. Data skills – it’s also important to ensure that people at all levels of society are data literate and equipped with the skills required to understand, use and interpret data. According to Royal Society research, “the demand for specialist data skills has more than tripled since 2013, while DCMS-commissioned analysis of 9.4 million online job adverts predicts that data analysis skills will be the fastest growing digital skills cluster over the next five years”. However, with over 100,000 unfilled data skills in the UK last year, there is a big gap that needs to be filled.

On top of that, Exasol’s D/NATIVES research suggests that only 43% of the 3,000 16-21 year olds surveyed consider themselves to be data literate, and over half (55%) believe that learning data skills should be more prominent in their education.

The good news is that the strategy proposes to work with educators, businesses, individuals and industry bodies such as the Alan Turing Institute and the IDA to encourage a more joined up approach to ensuring better data literacy for those who need it.

3. Data availability – for the strategy to work optimally, data needs to be easily accessible, transferable and available for employees to re-use, allowing for a seamless flow of data between individuals, organisations and even international borders.

Data sharing in this way can fuel growth and innovation, as well as allow public sector groups to gain vital insights from other organisations and public sector officials to make decisions on e.g., resourcing and spending, based on accurate, real-time information. A great example is Transport for London (TfL), which opened up its data sets to travellers and third-party providers and contributed up to £130 million per year to the London economy through time saved by travellers.

By easing access to and harnessing the potential of public services data, it’s possible to achieve more wins like this, which will go a long way towards providing more jobs, cutting costs and delivering better services. France is already ahead in this area. Its appointed CDO files an annual report that overviews inventory, governance, production, circulation and use of data by administrations, which enables year-on-year measurement and performance evaluation.

4. Responsible data – data privacy continues to be a top concern and priority for many, and the government has pledged in this strategy to ensure that data remains lawful, secure, fair, ethical, sustainable and accountable.

There are of course completely ethical and beneficial reasons for public data to be collected and made available. For example, in order to understand threats to national security, cater for population trends and use medical data to track and manage disease outbreaks and infection rates such as COVID-19.

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Employing a data champion for the nation

In order to champion data-driven innovation across society and public sector organisations, plans need to be driven forward by ambitious and experienced leaders. As such, one of the flagship proposals of the strategy is to appoint a CDO to lead the UK government’s approach to data use and data policy – a role which currently exists in just a few countries, including Estonia, France and Australia.

At a business level, the CDO is rapidly emerging as one of the most valuable roles in an organisation, responsible for leading the strategic direction of the company, understanding and leveraging data to support business strategy and playing an increasingly important role in shaping and influencing it as its implemented. This makes CDOs key in driving the business forward across the board, including growth, innovation and operational efficiencies.

This is really important for the UK government to action as the stakes are high. In economic value alone, a report by the National Infrastructure Commission shows that data contributes over £50bn a year to the UK economy through direct, indirect and induced impacts.

Written by Lucinda Smith, data analytics solutions director at Exasol

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