Big data has been addressed recently by Parliament and it appears that the Government is starting to take some steps in the right direction.
The Big Data Dilemma
The Science and Technology Committee’s recent report, The Big Data Dilemma, made a series of suggestions as to what needs to be done in order to get the best value out of data, including the urgent need to tackle the country’s digital skills crisis, overcoming public distrust in data sharing and also the establishment of a Council of Data Ethics. The Government has read the findings, taken note, and issued a response as to what its next steps on these recommendations will be.
The first of the Government’s responses regards data sharing. The report indicated that more needed to be done to breakdown departmental data silos within government to bring data from different areas together, further improving public services and data quality. In response, the Government indicated that steps are being taken to make our information more open, whilst also announcing the launch of the new consent/opt-out model for sharing of medical data.
This is a positive step and indicates an understanding of the need for more openness whilst also protecting privacy. However, what is concerning is that the Government's response to such data sharing suggestions is framed almost exclusively in relation to the private sector. It focuses on how companies can better access Government data and also share datasets in a competitive market, failing to give enough attention as to more widespread and inclusive use for the public good.
Does the Government plan to cultivate data sharing for more collective benefit beyond just the private sector? This is a major area to be clarified as the data we share has huge public value; it shows where our services are put under the most strain or working at their best. This massive amount of information has the capability to transform the day to day lives of the general public, yet there is very limited mention of using datasets in this way. Is the assumption that the private sector will fill this gap, as shown by the likes of Citymapper? The Government should outline a specific strategy here, hopefully one that will be more inclusive across civil society.
The digital skills gap
It is encouraging to see that education figures prominently in the Government’s response. The digital skills gap is not a new phenomenon and has been something that has plagued the industry for some time, with the report indicating that it is ‘approaching crisis level’. However, there seems to be too narrow a focus that only discusses analytical abilities. As important as these are, the Data Skills Taskforce, a body that nurtures homegrown talent and the Government says it is supporting, must recognise the need for teaching a wider array of data literacies. This will help us to better understand and address the social, cultural, political and economic dimensions of big data. To do so will 'unlock the power of data', as the report states, in a more inclusive and dynamic manner, generating new insights and value not only in business but across communities and our digital culture.
Producing only data scientists with analytical skills, we will be left with little ability to apply and ultimately benefit from the data at our disposal. But as well as Government action, education establishments such as King's must ensure every effort is taken to train the next generation of data scientists in the skills required to build a functioning and fair data-centric society.
The Council of Data Ethics
Finally, the Government has taken the report's advice and announced that it is establishing a Council of Data Ethics to help address the growing legal and ethical challenges associated with balancing privacy, anonymisation, security, and public benefit when it comes to data use. This should help dramatically in developing a data industry that operates for the good of all. Firstly, it must ensure that the data being extracted and used is not purely economic and focused on business development, but also works to improve society. The body should look at cultivating 'proportionate, secure and well-governed' data sharing among citizens to ensure that social and cultural value is generated from public data, as opposed to exclusively economic. Whether in public transport, our environment or the everyday services we use, public data can help identify issues and point to solutions.
Privacy is the second issue that the Council needs to address. Safeguarding personal information in an ever more digital world is never simple; we must work to ensure people’s rights are protected. But we must also not inhibit creative and critical approaches to using the big data we generate as a collective resource for public good.
It is good to see businesses and the Government alike finding ways to make the most of our big data resources. The Government nonetheless still has many questions to answer when it comes to tackling the issues the report highlights. With a more inclusive approach across civil society, we will be able to assume a global lead in big data.
Dr Mark Cote, Lecturer in Digital Culture and Society at King's College London
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