The release of the National Data Strategy (NDS) in September is a major step forward for the government’s digital approach. Long in the making, it sets out an ambitious program for improving the country’s data capabilities, drawing on experience from the government’s response to Covid-19.
The pandemic starkly illustrated public services’ urgent requirement for accurate and accessible data. Such information has been used to save lives and provide aid to the needy during lockdown, with the government saying that over four million support packages were delivered to vulnerable people as a result of data sharing between local and central government and the private sector.
While a further consultation is due on the NDS’s specifics, the main question will be whether the government can deliver on the document’s promise. Much of the strategy concerns making data more accessible and useful for the public and private sectors, which will be crucial as the government pursues its pro-growth strategy and continues to protect public health.
A force for modernization?
The government is understandably proud of the UK’s position as the largest data market in Europe, as shown by a European Commission study. The country has long held a strong position in digital services and is only beaten by China and the US in terms of venture capital technology investment.
However, it will only maintain this strength if the government establishes a secure, resilient and accessible environment for data. As such it is as important that the government supports proper integration of IT infrastructures, both within and between businesses and with respect to the government’s own departments and agencies.
As the NDS notes, the government must update its legacy IT systems, which have often been built independently within departments on an iterative basis. This makes it difficult for different systems to speak to one another, preventing data from being put to new, innovative uses which could aid public services and save the taxpayer money. Many public service institutions are held back by technical debt as a result of these legacy systems; the NDS can eradicate this if implemented thoroughly and correctly.
Many existing problems are attributable to a lack of technology supporting effective use and storage of data across cloud services, which have become even more indispensable throughout the lockdown. Modernized systems will ensure that data becomes transparent, trustworthy and easier to share, helping the public sector adapt to the growing demands of the country as it moves forward.
Not every organization is inclined towards sharing data, even if they have the systems in place. Those who responded to the government’s initial calls for evidence noted that some organizations remain risk averse, are reluctant to share data if there is no benefit to them, or otherwise ‘hoard’ data without a plan for making good use of it.
Encouraging organizations to more readily share their information while keeping the proper protections in place will therefore be a necessary step towards reform. The UK government has a unique role in championing the uses of data and building trust in the systems that handle it, while balancing economic gains against demands for appropriate security and privacy.
While the NDS focuses on overarching goals, it also mentions several ongoing projects that provide concrete examples of what could be achieved. Among the most important is the Integrated Data Platform, which the government has said will be “a safe, secure and trusted infrastructure” for its own data. The platform will enable digital collaboration, supporting the government in linking data together and establishing proper standards.
This platform is vital, and a strong sign of the government’s intent in connecting data infrastructures together. Helping to eradicate data silos will improve data sharing between public services, giving policy and decision-makers the real-time data access they need to implement change, improve public services and use data to improve people's lives.
Many will also be keenly watching the Online Harms Data Infrastructure, a £2.6m pilot that will look at how better data interoperability and sharing can improve detection of online harms. The project will analyze whether opening up data on cyber threats will yield economic or social benefits and test potential solutions.
The government hopes efforts like this could bolster its case for the UK being the safest place to start a digital business. Infrastructure reform will complement changes to the legal environment, including the Law Commission’s latest proposals to protect people from harmful online behavior.
The potential benefits extend far beyond the digital realm. The National Infrastructure Commission has argued that structuring digital twin data which replicates the built environment could yield cost savings and help reduce the UK’s environmental impact. Likewise, several organizations are mooting a national underground asset register. This would improve the safety of workers dealing with underground assets, as well as reducing the likelihood of such assets being damaged during maintenance work and helping planners to decide where new buildings should be placed. Beyond creating a digital ecosystem that stimulates innovation and growth, it is clear that having a well-crafted data strategy will have a fundamental effect on people's lives.
Work to do
Although the strategy and many of the related projects are promising, the public and private sectors have a great deal of work to do to realize such ambitions. Legislators must work together with IT practitioners and users to join up systems and ease the flow of data wherever possible.
The proper integration of national IT infrastructure is a huge opportunity for the government and businesses. A modernized, agile architecture can eradicate data silos, creating a transparent system in which data can be securely shared across public services.
With the right approach the government can not only protect the public against the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, but make good on its desire to boost workforce productivity, improve the implementation of public policy, and create a fairer society.
Mike Kiersey, Principal Technologist, Boomi