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Budget 2020: Investment in science and technology needs to bring about strong data infrastructure for the UK to thrive

Thu Mar 12, 2020
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ODI’s CEO Jeni Tennison shares the ODI”s response to the UK government’s Budget this week, focusing on investment in data infrastructure

ODI’s CEO Jeni Tennison shares the ODI”s response to the UK government’s Budget this week, focusing on investment in data infrastructure

We listened eagerly to yesterday’s Budget delivered by Chancellor Rishi Sunak in the House of Commons, announcing the government’s tax and spending plans for the UK in the year ahead. The headlines from the Chancellor did not include explicit investment in the UK’s data infrastructure, but many of the other commitments show that collecting, using and sharing data will be cornerstones of this government’s agenda.

“Companies should be incentivised to open or share the data they already collect – in trustworthy and well-governed ways – rather than to collect more of it”

The first important commitment to data infrastructure was to implement the recommendations of the Furman Review of digital competition. As we wrote when the review was released, regulators can encourage competition and make markets work better for consumers by increasing access to data. The review described approaches including open standards, data portability, open data as well as data that is shared through collaborative data access models like data trusts or other data institutions. We are looking forward to working with the new Digital Markets Taskforce to see those recommendations through to action.

On the same theme, it was interesting to see a commitment to ‘consult on whether qualifying R&D tax credit costs should include investments in data and cloud computing’. There are good reasons to encourage firms to invest in data, but these need to be weighed against incentivising data minimisation to protect privacy. Companies should be incentivised to open or share the data they already collect – in trustworthy and well-governed ways – rather than to collect more of it.

“It’s great to see the Chancellor investing in the effective use of data in government, but really important that any sharing of data between public bodies is transparent and well-governed, to retain public trust in government’s use of data”

A second major commitment was around data sharing within government. The Budget has committed £16.4m to improve its use of data over the next three years, including £6.8m for the Office of National Statistics ‘to make it easier to share more, higher-quality data across government’. This commitment is a good response to the National Audit Office’s recent report ‘Challenges in using data across government’ which highlighted shortfalls in the government’s own data practice. This commitment was set in the context of the government’s National Data Strategy ‘to unlock the power of data across government and the wider economy, while building trust in its use’.

It’s great to see the Chancellor investing in the effective use of data in government, but really important that any sharing of data between public bodies is transparent and well-governed, to retain public trust in government’s use of data. A recent survey by ODI found that only 30% of respondents trusted the government to use data about them ethically. It’s also vital to recognise that services that support citizens – from social care to education to health – are often provided by the private or community sector. There should not be an artificial data moat around the public sector: access to data held by the government should be considered in the round.

At ODI, we often talk about data as being a new, vital form of infrastructure and argue that data infrastructure needs to be constructed around government priorities. There seemed to be some recognition of this in the Budget. The government’s action to fight waste crime includes funding for a ‘digital waste tracking system to provide better data on waste transport’. They promise to ‘convene a summit looking at what further data needs to be made accessible to make it faster and easier for SMEs to shop around for credit’. And they have committed to “a new fund of up to £5 million per year, to support the development of new economic data and its more innovative use”. Hopefully the important role of data as infrastructure – and not just about infrastructure – will be recognised in the upcoming National Infrastructure Strategy.

“It remains to be seen whether these investments are done in a piecemeal fashion or with coherence towards a vision of an open, trustworthy data ecosystem”

Data infrastructure needs to be maintained by data institutions, whose purpose is to steward data that the UK benefits from. One welcome announcement in the Budget is that the Land Registry will cease to be a trading fund, and transition to being part of central government. That move could help resolve the tensions trading funds often face between their duty to maximise the use of the data they steward for the broad benefit of the UK, and their requirement to create short term financial returns. Notably there was no similar move for other, similar data institutions such as Ordnance Survey or Companies House. The Budget also contained an announcement of a new government unit to ‘unlock more value from [knowledge assets including data] and support innovation and productivity’; we hope that unit will draw on our recent research with the Bennett Institute at the University of Cambridge and recognise that we get the maximum value from data when it is as open as possible.

Notable by its absence was any mention of responsible, ethical or trustworthy technology. Instead there was a commitment to ‘look at existing domestic or EU derived regulations that might hinder digital competition and entrench monopoly behaviours and[…] ensure that regulatory reforms applying to digital and tech businesses are pro-innovation and coherent’. This is likely to be a reference to revisiting the UK’s data protection legislation, which is currently based on GDPR. The overall tone intention is a long way from the speech Boris Johnson made to the UN General Assembly last September, where he emphasised the UK’s role as a ‘global leader in ethical and responsible technology’. We hope that the urgent social and economic needs of the day do not divert us from that longer term vision.

Overall, a Budget that, in its own words, ‘puts science, innovation and technology at the heart of the UK’s investment strategy’ will necessarily result in investments in data infrastructure, increased data capability, and open innovation. It remains to be seen whether these investments are made in a piecemeal fashion or with coherence towards a vision of an open, trustworthy data ecosystem.