Image credit: ODI

The UK National Data Strategy 2020: data as infrastructure, data for infrastructure

Mon Oct 19, 2020
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Our manifesto: data infrastructure

At the ODI, we want a world where data works for everyone, and our manifesto outlines how this vision can be achieved. One of our manifesto points is that sectors and societies must invest in and protect the data infrastructure they rely on, and that open data is the foundation of this emerging vital infrastructure. How could this principle be realised in a national data strategy?

Data about our physical infrastructure

Data is essential for protecting and maintaining our physical infrastructure. For example, up-to-date and granular data about the quality of roads or railways could help maintain the transport system and prevent accidents. In 2018, the ODI launched a major project with the Lloyd’s Register Foundation to improve safety in the engineering sector through better data sharing. Through this work we identified a roadmap for increasing data access and driving innovation in engineering; this roadmap has been endorsed by a growing list of organisations in the domain, across the private and public sectors, including Arup, Mott MacDonald, the Health and Safety Executive, the Royal Academy of Engineering, and the Alan Turing Institute.

Data can also be used to create or develop national infrastructure through ‘digital twins’ – a digital model of a physical object that can inform planning and decision-making through real-time monitoring, or through forecasting and testing future scenarios. We’ve been working with the Centre for Digital Built Britain and others to explore good practice in the development of digital twins at local, city, or national level. One outcome of this has been the creation of the Gemini Principles for ensuring that a national digital twin is developed for the public good.

For data to fulfil its potential value for public good in these kinds of physical infrastructure projects, it’s important that data is shared. The Gemini Principles include a commitment to data for a national digital twin being as open as possible. And in 2018 the National Infrastructure Commission recommended that data be shared across private and public sectors for public benefit. So in a national data strategy we’d like to see commitments to supporting the availability of data assets for the public good.

Data about other national infrastructure

But national infrastructure is more than large-scale engineering projects in the built environment. A country’s network of cultural institutions is just as much a part of its national infrastructure as its transport system, because a nation is also its cultures, its heritage, and its communities.

Earlier this month we hosted a public talk from the Smithsonian about how it is using data to make the Smithsonian’s collection – the largest museum complex in the world – available for a wider range of research and education projects. For example, a digitised collection item – like a digital twin of a physical object – allows the original to be preserved while the digitised version can be easily accessed from anywhere in the world.

When large datasets from museums and art galleries are shared, it means that new kinds of ambitious and innovative research is made possible. The British Academy has explored how the field of digital humanities uses data science techniques typically associated with large engineering projects (such as artificial intelligence) to do analyses that would otherwise be too complex for individual researchers or research teams.

We’re also working with the Collections Trust to explore how Britain’s 1,700 museums might share their collections data. This could help museums collaborate more effectively around loans from their collections. And it could also help safeguard the future of artefacts that might be at risk of being disposed of from one collection, but that could usefully be gifted to a different collection where they might have more relevance.

We’d like a national data strategy to have a holistic vision of national infrastructure, and the role of data within it, and to value social and cultural data as a public good that is made available for research and collaboration.

Richer data for better infrastructure

It’s not just systems and institutions that are integral to national infrastructure. We believe that the data that forms our data infrastructure, and that informs our policy and planning and innovations, must reflect the richness of our society.

At last year’s ODI Summit one of our keynote speeches was given by Caroline Criado Perez, author of Invisible Women, about her work exposing the ‘gender data gap’ – the chronic and pervasive absence of data about women across research, design, and policy, sometimes with fatal consequences for women. Awareness of this data gap, and a commitment to address it, can drive important innovation. Last month we hosted a public talk by the BFI about how they have been using new computational techniques to genderise 250,000 credited film contributors, and in this way analyse the career trajectories of women across British filmography since the start of cinema. These techniques could also contribute to improving diversity and inclusion more broadly in film.

The ways in which data is organised and classified reflects how we interpret the world, but it can also shape our thinking in ways that limit it. Dr Errol Francis, CEO of Culture&, has spoken about the importance of ‘decolonising the database’ of some assumptions – and how this can give us new critical perspectives on the data we have, as well as highlight opportunities to do things differently. For example, artist and game-maker AM Darke has used open source code to create the Open Source Afro Hair Library – a free database of 3D models of Black hairstyles and textures that can be used by digital artists and in games, virtual/augmented reality, and other 3D media.

We believe that insights and innovations like these are best supported by data infrastructure that reflects a diversity of experience and perspectives to provide a rounded view of the world. So we’d like a national data strategy that recognises the richness of data, and the breadth of data infrastructure, that’s needed for accurate, and responsible policy and planning, and for innovation.

Get involved

These are just some of our aspirations for a national data strategy, and some of the ideas we are exploring as we develop our response to the consultation about the UK’s National Data Strategy 2020. We’ll also be discussing some of these ideas at the ODI Summit next month.

The consultation is open to individuals and organisations across the UK, and it’s important that a wide range of voices and perspectives contribute to it – so do share and participate.

At the start of this project, we pulled together this spreadsheet to map the different elements of the UK National Data Strategy, to help us plan our response to it. We’ve also made a version which shows which sections of the National Data Strategy we think are most relevant to our ODI manifesto ideas about data infrastructure, to examine those sections in more depth and evaluate them. Feel free to download the spreadsheet and to adapt it for your own use.

If you think anything is missing from the spreadsheet, or you’d like to discuss the ideas in this post, tweet us @ODIHQ or email us: [email protected].

For more about how we’re engaging with the UK National Data Strategy consultation, please visit the project page.