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Mapping data in the UK government: infrastructure

Thu Aug 5, 2021
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In September 2020, the UK government published the draft framework National Data Strategy (NDS) for public consultation, updating it in May 2021 in response to the views and evidence received.

Our new policy project explores Mission 3 of the NDS: ‘transforming government’s use of data to drive efficiency and improve public services’. We believe that government succeeding in this mission enables Mission 1 – unlocking the value of data cross the economy – to be accomplished. This allows the overall ambition of the NDS, to ‘help organisations of every kind succeed – across the public, private and third sectors’, to be achieved. Through transforming its own use of data, government can set an example for others and show how its own data practices can enable data flows and data use across sectors.

As part of our project, we’re mapping the different teams responsible for data across the UK government and public sector landscape, and the data-related initiatives they’re undertaking. We’ll be examining them against the six components of a trusted and trustworthy data ecosystem that we outline in our manifesto: infrastructure, capability, innovation, equity, ethics, and engagement.

You can read more about the project here and see our mapping so far here.

Open data infrastructure as a foundation

In this blogpost, we’re focusing on ‘data infrastructure’. As we say in the ODI manifesto:

Sectors and societies must invest in and protect the data infrastructure they rely on. Open data is the foundation of this emerging vital infrastructure.

When many people think about infrastructure, they think about utilities like electricity and water supplies, or transport infrastructure like railway lines and roads. Data should be seen as important as these energy and transport networks, given how it enables more effective and efficient government and public services, and economic and social growth.

Data infrastructure can be thought of as:

  • data assets (like datasets, identifiers and registers),
  • the standards and technologies that allow those assets to be curated and accessed,
  • the guidance and policies that inform the use and management of those assets,
  • the organisations that govern the infrastructure, and
  • the communities that contribute, maintain or are impacted by it.

Data infrastructure should be as open as possible for us to get the most value from it – in particular, key datasets that are stewarded by the public sector and can be seen as national public data infrastructure.

The NDS includes ‘data foundations’ as one of its pillars, which covers some infrastructure issues such as standards, consistency and quality. In our response to the NDS consultation, we had a number of recommendations on infrastructure, including building the construction and strengthening of data infrastructure into existing programmes of work, empowering policymakers to build access to data into future interventions, the need for funding, and for government to steward foundational datasets such as geospatial data, data about people, and data about organisations for wider public purpose.

Data infrastructure in government

Our crowdsourcing document, which we’re using to pull together knowledge about data in government, already includes some UK government organisations with infrastructure responsibilities and initiatives.

There’s the Data Standards Authority, part of the new Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO), which ‘leads the cross-government conversation around data standards’, including how to develop and enforce them. The CDDO itself is responsible for setting and maintaining other standards across government, including open standards, for which the Open Standards Board is accountable and which the open standards community helps select.

Other parts of Cabinet Office also have infrastructure responsibilities:

  • The Government Digital Service (GDS) for joined-up data across government including ‘creating the cross-government reference architecture and identifying, enabling and standardising the data registers across government most critical to service delivery’ and for data.gov.uk (or ‘Find Open Data’)
  • The new Information and Data Exchange (INDEX) for developing ‘digital solutions’ for the better of sharing of information across government
  • Government Business Services for some corporate information across government, such as finance and HR data
  • The Geospatial Commission for oversight of the government’s location data, which is key foundational data for the economy and society.

In Scotland, the Scottish Government’s Digital Directorate provides leadership, including ‘providing a foundation for the digital delivery of public services’, while in Wales, the Centre for Digital Public Services provides standards (and guidance, direction and training) for those working in digital and data.

The UK Statistics Authority is responsible for the UK’s official statistics infrastructure. UK Research and Innovation, and research council-funded projects and data institutions such as Health Data Research UK (HDR UK), Our Future Health and Administrative Data Research UK (ADR UK) are responsible for social science and research data infrastructure. There are also bodies responsible for securing our data infrastructure, ranging from the ONS’s Secure Research Service which allows safe and secure access to research data, to the National Cyber Security Centre which provides support and guidance for keeping data safe across government.

Some of these organisations and initiatives are relatively new, but government attempts to get a grip on data infrastructure are not. In 2000, ‘e-government: A strategic framework for public services in the Information Age’ said departments would implement common standards to allow interoperability. The National Information Infrastructure was developed during the 2010–15 Coalition government to ‘contain the data held by government which is likely to have the broadest and most significant economic and social impact’. The 2017 Government Transformation Strategy pledged to build ‘a national data infrastructure of registers (authoritative lists that are held once across government)’ by 2020; GDS’s work on registers wrapped up unsuccessfully in 2021. The National Audit Office’s report on the challenges in using data across government highlights ‘coherent infrastructure’ as one of the key conditions for success, and cautions that a lack of strategic leadership has undermined the effectiveness of previous initiatives.

One promising sign is the recognition that data infrastructure initiatives can also be led by public bodies with more specific remits. The Department of Health and Social Care, NHS Digital and NHSX are responsible for health data infrastructure; the Department for Transport for transport data infrastructure; the Department for Education for educational data infrastructure and so on. The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government is responsible for both data infrastructure about housing and that stewarded by local authorities, and is particularly notable for its focus on ‘fixing the plumbing’.

Examples from elsewhere

There are also private sector examples that the UK government can learn from, such as in the engineering and infrastructure sector. The National Infrastructure Commission’s report on ‘Data for the public good’ finds that improved sharing of data about the UK’s infrastructure could lead to lower bills for consumers, a reduced impact on the environment and improved transport. Work on the National Digital Twin also involves a focus on capturing, using and sharing data about infrastructure effectively, in order to ‘improve how infrastructure is built, managed, operated and eventually decommissioned’.

Elsewhere, other countries and international organisations are investing in data infrastructure projects, such as Europe’s Gaia-X project, which brings together business, science and politics to develop ‘an open, transparent digital ecosystem, where data and services can be made available, collated and shared in an environment of trust’, or France’s view of data as essential infrastructure, including efforts to build a public data service and become a digital republic.

Get involved

We’d love you to help us map relevant UK public sector teams and initiatives, as well as relevant examples from other sectors or other countries. Our mapping document is open to comments and contributions so that we can crowdsource to help us fill out the gaps, and to get your perspectives on government data initiatives. It is open for comment until Friday 17 September 2021 (extended from 10 September). You can also email [email protected] or submit via our anonymous Google Form.

Alongside our broader engagement with the UK National Data Strategy, some of the ODI’s wider portfolio of work in this area includes:

Contribute to our crowdsourced Google document Contribute to the ODI 'Mapping: data in the UK government' document