Reflections on the National Data Strategy Forum and data priorities going forward
I was delighted to take part in the inaugural meeting of the National Data Strategy (NDS) Forum early this summer as it represented clear progress on a vital agenda. As one of the world’s most powerful web-data collection platforms, Bright Data of course has a vested interest in the success of the NDS. We are strong supporters of the full economic and social potential of data being realised around the world, coupled with a regulatory regime that maintains high standards without stifling innovation. The NDS offers a clear vision for the UK to lead the way in this, but as outlined in the summary of the first Forum meeting, it needs to be brought to life and implemented by a coalition of private, public and third sector organisations working with government.
The Forum is a perfect example of the value of such a collaborative approach. I like to think I have a well-informed perspective on issues around the collection, structuring and application of web data — it is after all what my company is in the business of doing. I recognise however that there is real value in speaking with people involved in other parts of the global data ecosystem. This is why the NDS Forum is so important, offering an opportunity to engage with people from other parts of industry, the public sector and academia. The shared understandings that this will create and the cross-sector coalitions that emerge will all be central to helping drive and deliver the NDS.
The diverse perspectives at the first meeting ensured that much was covered in the discussion. Everything from the infrastructure needed to build a data-economy to the opportunities for cross-sector knowledge were covered, but the big takeaway for me was just how important the issue of trust in data is. This is perhaps unsurprising. On the occasions that data does become a topic of public debate it is usually in the context of fears about privacy, of questions over ownership of personal data, or of the threat of data-driven polarisation. Little wonder then that the social and economic opportunities of data are yet to be widely embraced.
Setting the agenda
There is a real need to broaden the public’s understanding of data and the benefits it can bring, alongside an informed appreciation of risks and how they can be managed. One of the main building blocks of this will need to be a system of regulation and data protection that the public can be confident in. It’s been encouraging therefore to see that the discussion of these issues by the Forum is already having an influence.
Trust in data has been identified as one of the key workstreams that the NDS Forum will concentrate on over the coming months. Building public trust in the use of data and ensuring that fears about misuse are balanced with an understanding of the potential for good are the tasks well suited to the range of organisations represented on the Forum. We can point to the breadth of ways in which data is — and could be — used positively and safely across many areas of society, while providing first-hand accounts of where fears need to be addressed or action taken to create new safeguards.
Related to that need for appropriate safeguards, I’m encouraged that government is moving quickly forward to develop a new data protection regime. While Bright Data is a company that deals exclusively with public data, which makes up most of the web data created, protecting and empowering people over their private data does much to build confidence in the benefits of using all forms of data. It also helps guard against the threat of unscrupulous operators that damage the reputation of our industry. As a rule, we should treat any need for data with utmost responsibility and transparently communicate it to the public.
Beyond these initial steps, there is still much further to be travelled in reaching the full ambition of the NDS. I’ll be using the opportunity of the NDS Forum to put forward priorities drawn from my own experience. For example, while much of the regulatory debate tends to focus on the use of private data, we also need to set standards for the collection of public web data. Consumer markets will be made more competitive through encouraging much greater transparency on the internet — stopping, for example, e-commerce operators from being able to block their competitors from viewing public information on their websites in the same way that consumers can. And there is a strong case to make sure that an understanding about data is nurtured throughout the education system.
While discussion is vital however, we need to guard against the Forum merely being a talking shop. The NDS will ultimately only have real value if it facilitates real, tangible action and better outcomes for all of us interested in unlocking the power of data. This is why it’s important that a monitoring and evaluation framework is being put in place. It will play a dual role: (1) helping companies like mine, and others who share our interest in seeing the UK develop as a data pioneer, see how the objectives of the NDS are being delivered and (2) providing companies and those with an interest in data across the UK with helpful signals about the health of the data ecosystem.
It’s an oft-quoted cliche that data is the new oil, but in actuality we should be thinking of it more as the new water. The days of data merely being a commodity that enhances business success have given way to an age of data as an essential requirement for doing business, driving important initiatives, and even saving lives. In our real-time economy, every business in every sector now relies on data in one form or another — whether it be the data generated through company activities and interactions with customers or the data accessed from external sources.
This creates the inevitability that data will have an impact on everyone’s lives in a host of different ways everyday, making the NDS so much more than something that is merely nice for the UK to have. The vision it sets out has the potential to play a major role in the country’s future, but it is incumbent on all of us with a stake in its success to work together in making it a reality. All of us with an interest in data-for-good, whether public servants, business people or educators, need to play a part in encouraging a culture that appreciates the full scope of possibilities that data unlocks with complete transparency and an understanding of how to reap the rewards.