Transforming government with data

Source: PSE Aug/Sept 2017

Peter Wells, head of policy at the Open Data Institute, explains why the need to strengthen our data infrastructure has never been more important.

Data is infrastructure. Like roads that help us navigate to a destination, data helps us navigate to a decision. And like roads, data is most useful and powerful when connected to other data. For example, it would be difficult for an ambulance service to run efficiently without data about patients, hospitals, addresses, traffic routes and traffic congestion.

The public sector supports huge amounts of this data infrastructure, as it underpins our public services and knowledge of society. Making this data as open as possible will allow people to use it in other sectors. Much of the data that is useful for an ambulance could also help organisations that transport medicine, bed sheets or food to and from hospitals, chemists, supermarkets or our offices and homes.

Much of this data infrastructure is also supported by the private sector, and businesses use it to deliver their services. Making private sector data as open as possible can help create new business models, grow the economy and help the public sector do its job too. For example, the private sector has better data on traffic congestion than the public sector.

We must consider the role data has to play in our society, where data has served us well, and where there are gaps, if we are to create trust and get the most impact from data.

Similar challenges exist in the public sector and the private sector: gaps in knowledge and skills; the need to engage people in debating how data should be collected, used and who can innovate with it; and the challenge of learning what are ethical boundaries when using data.

There is a need to make data equitable and spread its benefits to everyone, everywhere. With equitable access to data – made open for anyone to access, use and share, or shared under controlled conditions – people can make better decisions, businesses can keep pace with innovation in a changing world and policymakers can use data to deliver policy.

Tackling these challenges needs more than theoretical thinking. It needs experiments and delivery to build data literacy and understanding for citizens, for people building services and for politicians.

The public sector can learn how to make data easier to use by joining groups that develop open standards for data, and taking part in initiatives like OpenActive, which is helping activity providers to publish their opportunity data (when and where activities happen) with the aim of helping more people get physically active. 

Local economies can grow by publishing more data openly and encouraging the private sector to do the same, either through persuasion or through government’s procurement power. By releasing open data people can experiment and innovate beyond expectations. The public sector can also work with the private sector and civil society to use data to tackle common challenges like flooding or transport.

More and more of the services we use every day rely on data, so strengthening our data infrastructure has never been more important. When we maintain our roads, we choose where they need to be widened and where junctions and bridges are needed to better connect people and places. We must do the same with data infrastructure.


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