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UK Data Sharing: Get on with it, says industry lobby group

"We are now falling behind key competitors..."

Industry lobbying group techUK has told the government to pull its finger out on UK data sharing, warning the country is “falling behind” other regions, especially the EU.

Released earlier this week, the techUK white paper makes seven specific policy recommendations on the subject of UK data sharing, including industry collaboration, a clear plan for opening up government data, and investment in regional data ecosystems. But the gist of all the recommendations is simple: get on with it.

(Given the current circumstances, it is of course unlikely the government, such as it, is will be getting on with anything right now. But we’re reasonably confident normal service will be resumed in due course, when the government can return to ignoring things proactively, rather than as a by-product of a messy implosion.)

“Action here is required as while the UK was once a leader in debates around open data, we are now falling behind key competitors in our ability to lead global debates on future data governance. For example, the European Union (EU) is investing heavily in its data infrastructure and capabilities and developing legislation and regulation to enable private and public sector data sharing at a faster pace than the UK,” said the techUK white paper.

See also: NHS data strategy lauded for “rare willingness to move beyond aphorisms”

The paper’s first UK data sharing recommendation is the beefiest: “Step up work to facilitate voluntary, trusted, and responsible avenues for private and third sector data sharing, including delivering on the BEIS Smart Data workstream and Mission 1 of the National Data Strategy.”

Referring to two of the major initiatives by BEIS and DCMS – and it is perhaps notable that, once again, government policy is split between two departments – techUK said the government had made a “welcome start” on the National Data Strategy, and work on the Smart Data Workstream was “encouraging”.

“However, the Government needs to move beyond policy thinking and begin to implement the interventions outlined under the Mission 1 Policy Framework. This includes making progress in laying primary legislation for Smart Data, which has lost momentum, and ensuring industry has continued visibility of its progress,” said the paper.

“Failure to do so risks the Government falling behind the pace of innovation at home, and in its ability to lead international approaches to private sector data sharing.”

The second recommendation calls for ethical considerations to “underpin the sharing of data, particularly personal data”, and notes “public trust is vital in upholding the frameworks and systems in place to facilitate the responsible use of data, such as the data protection regime”.

TechUK’s remaining UK data sharingrecommendations all amount to specific variations on the theme of “the government needs to take action now”. The paper notes data sharing can bring real value to the economy to the tune of between 1% and 2.5% of GDP – but only if the government takes action.

See also: UK gov taps Google’s Ghahramani to head ‘Future of Compute’ review

“The Government… has a long-standing challenge of lacking a data-first culture, which has meant there are not enough data champions and leaders in Departments who are prioritising data issues,” the white paper said, citing a 2020 Kantar report commissioned by DCMS.

That report painted a dim picture of the government’s attitude towards data – with industry stakeholders reported as being disillusioned about the prospects of improvement.

“Despite its perceived importance across the sample, stakeholders believed that data sharing practices and initiatives were not being prioritised or appropriately resourced by government. Stakeholders felt there was little desire from government to improve data sharing methods; one stakeholder referred to their desire for a singular government data sharing system as “blue-sky” thinking,” said the Kantar report.

It also noted stakeholders believed funding for data projects was “precarious” and liable to be shifted to other activities – “Brexit being a commonly cited example”. The report referenced a National Audit Office report from 2019, which found data sharing projects were frequently axed when funding came under pressure.

At time of writing, it is clear we won’t know how the British government will look, or what its policy agenda will be, for several months. But it is also clear that when it comes to issues around the digital economy, tech policy, and UK data sharing, the government will have a substantial amount of work to do – let’s hope these issues move higher up the policy agenda.

The seven tech UK Data Sharing recommendations:

1. Step up work to facilitate voluntary, trusted, and responsible avenues for private and third sector data sharing, including delivering on the BEIS Smart Data workstream and Mission 1 of the National Data Strategy,

2. Ensure that ethical considerations underpin the sharing of data, particularly personal data,

3. Deliver a more joined-up National Data Strategy, by offering greater visibility on the execution of Mission 3 and opportunities for industry engagement,

4. Outline a clear plan for the continued opening up of Government and public sector data sets, with the aim to move towards near real-time reporting of data,

5. Collaborate with industry to understand challenges related to data quality and develop a set of industry-driven standards to address these barriers,

6. Invest in sufficient resources to map regional data ecosystems, and set realistic benchmarks for the gathering of local government data,

7. Narrow the data skills gap and combat skills shortages by investing in training, upskilling, and reskilling of the UK’s workforce.

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