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Sharing engineering data for the public good (case study)

Thu Dec 26, 2019
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Learn about our work exploring the opportunities and barriers around data sharing in the engineering sector

Summary of the project

Better access to data can help organisations make more informed decisions. For the engineering sector, an increase in data sharing will help to increase productivity and drive innovation. It will also help build a global ‘safety evidence base’, that will generate insights to improve decision making around policies, practice and investments – and ultimately – inform the public’s understanding of risk.

This seven-month project, funded by the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, aimed to develop a movement within the engineering sector that would lead to the sharing and use of data for the public good, with a particular focus on improving safety.

We engaged with stakeholders – including the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Health and Safety Executive, The Alan Turing Institute and Cambridge University Press – to develop a shared vision around better use of data. In May 2019 we hosted a public event to help to articulate and explore our shared vision, and in October 2019, we published a manifesto and report with the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, encouraging organisations to use, publish and share data to increase safety within the sector.

At the ODI, we want those who steward data and those who create information from this data to act in ways that lead to the best social and economic outcomes for everyone. With this project, we explored the opportunities and barriers around data sharing to encourage more open data approaches within the engineering sector.

Key facts and figures

  • We considered projects, programmes and case studies in a broad range of industries and areas in which engineering plays a key role, including:
    • construction and maintenance of the built environment, including infrastructure projects
    • manufacturing
    • transport, including maritime and shipping
    • energy and utilities, including water, electricity, oil and gas
    • general health and safety reporting across sectors.
  • We conducted 12 user-research interviews with different organisations from across the sector
  • We created a manifesto with nine recommendations under the following headings:
    • 1. Data is infrastructure
    • 2. Data must be stewarded
    • 3. Opening and sharing data unlocks value
    • 4. Explore new data sharing models
    • 5. Use challenges to drive innovation that solves problems
    • 6. Regulation must adapt to new technologies and uses of data
    • 7. Building data literacy and skills
    • 8. Ensure data is used legally and ethically
    • 9. Share knowledge and insight
  • The manifesto has been endorsed by 17 engineering organisations including: Blue Marine Foundation, the Health and Safety Executive, Energy Systems Catapult, Structural-Safety, the Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering, the Royal Academy of Engineering, and The Alan Turing Institute.
  • In October 2019, the Lloyd’s Register Foundation launched a new stimulus fund to support projects that will help increase access to data in the sector. The initial fund will provide a total of £150,000 of funding for up to six projects.

What was the ODI’s role?

The Lloyd’s Register Foundation has a mission to increase safety in the engineering sector. The foundation has also produced reports on data and better use of data. At the ODI, we worked with the foundation to look at some of the opportunities for, and barriers to, data sharing.

The Lloyd’s Register Foundation funded the project. We coordinated a steering group to help guide and inform the project, which included representatives from the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, the Royal Academy of Engineering, The Alan Turing Institute, Cambridge University Press, and the Health and Safety Executive.

As a first step we carried out thorough research to identify case studies to help understand the sector and what previous work was available. We also ran some workshops that brought people together to help us discuss some of the opportunities, and undertook user research and interviews with different organisations.

We developed a manifesto, with the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, which identified a set of principles that will help increase access to data and drive innovation in the engineering sector. The organisations that endorsed the manifesto believe that the principles and actions are vital steps towards maximising the value of data for the public good.

In October 2019, the Lloyd’s Register Foundation also launched a new stimulus fund. The fund will support projects that will help increase access to data and drive innovation in the engineering sector with an emphasis on improving safety. The initial fund will provide a total of £150,000 of funding for up to six projects that will help to deliver on the recommendations in the manifesto.

A free public event started the wider conversation with the community around the challenges, opportunities and key enablers that will support the delivery of a vision for sharing engineering data for the public good, with an emphasis on increasing safety. We hosted the event with the Lloyd’s Register Foundation and the Royal Academy of Engineering, with the support of The Alan Turing Institute, the Health and Safety Executive, and Cambridge University Press. Attendees included those working in and around the engineering, energy and infrastructure sectors and people with an interest in driving innovation and increasing safety through better use of data.

This was our first project within the engineering sector. To support our research, it was helpful that there had been recent work in the sector looking at ways to drive digital transformation around construction in particular, and initiatives looking at trying to use data to improve health and safety.

What was challenging?

As it was a new sector for us, we had to spend a lot of time on desk research. This is common when we are getting up to speed with new sectors.

We didn’t initially set out to create a manifesto. As well as producing a report, our aim was to identify a theory of change for improving data use in the sector. Our colleagues at the Lloyd’s Register Foundation suggested that we focus on a manifesto as a way to articulate the vision, which was a good steer as it was felt that it was possibly too ambitious to set out a theory of change for such a broad sector. The manifesto helped to develop a shared vision. While this was a more effective approach, in some cases it took a lot of time to get organisations to provide the endorsement, especially when requiring board-level approval.

Making contact with international organisations was challenging. We hoped to make recommendations that would relevant internationally. We did make contact with UK-based organisations that have an international reach, but trying to connect effectively with the broader international network proved difficult. This was partly because we didn’t have ‘warm’ contacts in the relevant sectors, although we were able to take advantage of some of the connections via steering group members.

For future projects:

  • It is important to look early on at how to develop international contacts, either through outreach work or using partner organisations’ contacts, and to include this in the programme design.
  • We should also acknowledge that we need more time to get up to speed when working in new areas/sectors. It is also beneficial to work closely with partners, and to get advice from a steering group, if available, to help support the research phase.
  • The scope should be targeted and realistic.
  • We should build in more time for engagement and dissemination, as these are key aspects of creating impact.

What went well?

The groundwork had already been laid within the engineering sector. For example, the Royal Academy of Engineering had already been working on case studies around data sharing within engineering and – as part on the steering group for the project – we were able to work with them and build on existing research.

We spent time getting in-depth insight from the community. We held workshops and a roundtable discussion, and carried out interviews. This helped ensure we didn’t repeat work that had already been done, and enabled us to really understand the sector, the range of organisations involved and who is active in exploring data access in engineering.

We developed a good working relationship with the Lloyd’s Register Foundation and with the steering group. We have since worked with the foundation on a follow-up project and are having ongoing conversations about other areas of work. The project gave us an opportunity to engage with a broad range of organisations in the engineering sector.

Having a steering group was helpful, especially as we were new to the sector. The group worked effectively and collaboratively and the project members engaged well, providing a useful steer and constructive feedback, which improved the outputs. We also published terms of reference which helped clarify expectations.

For future projects in new sectors, we should continue to do in-person and face-to-face research (as well as desk research) and hold workshops helps to get to know the sector. We should also use an advisory board/steering group where possible, which helps to stay up to date with latest thinking and to avoid duplication of work.

What have we learned?

Having a mixed approach to research is an effective way to gain insight. We held workshops and interviews, and carried out desk research. This helped us to gain a comprehensive understanding of the issues, and to test our thinking in different ways and in different contexts.

Some of the issues evident in engineering are the same as those we’ve seen in other sector-based programmes of work. The sector shares the typical barriers around data sharing, and the recommendations that we put together drew heavily on some of our previous work. This demonstrates that there are underlying issues that are common across different sectors.