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Using data to change a sector: what we learned

Wed Dec 12, 2018
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Can data innovation help transform an entire sector?

As part of the ODI’s R&D programme, we set up a project to investigate how we could assess whether a sector is ready to solve problems using data. As the project draws to a close – with the learnings now being utilised in other key ODI research and sector-change projects – we reflect on the insights gained throughout the discovery phase

This project examines sector readiness – it looks at how and when to apply successful data methodologies to a sector to create positive change. The importance of sector-wide change is outlined in the ODI strategy: ‘Within sector programmes, we coordinate organisations to tackle a social or economic problem with data, using an open approach. This creates impact both through addressing the problem and embedding good data practices and business models.’

What did we learn about sector change?

We looked at how data-enabled sector change occurs and some of the key factors that help or hinder that change. To build a wider picture of sector change, we compared a range of programmes – both internal ODI programmes, such as OpenActive, and external initiatives, such as those detailed on The GovLab’s ‘Open Data’s Impact’ site.

From our research and ongoing sector-change work, it is clear that sector change is not a step-by-step, linear process. Rather we think that there are several key factors that should be in place to increase the likelihood of a sector successfully transforming. Our suggestions for those key factors are as follows.

Key factors for change

The first factor is to clearly identify a potentially ‘data-solvable’ social and/or economic problem across a sector. Focusing on a specific shared problem keeps the project goal-orientated. In previous sector-change programmes, the ODI has helped to increase competition (eg through Open Banking) and helped sectors monitor and aggregate important international data (eg the pharmaceutical sector as part of the antimicrobial resistance (AMR) research initiative). Elsewhere, sector-change programmes have sought to tackle the faltering education system in Mexico, disaster planning and relief in New Zealand, and switching healthcare providers in the Uruguay.

After identifying a problem, a sector requires motivation to work together to tackle it. Without strong motivation, particularly from senior figures in key organisations, it is unlikely that any change will be successful. We can see this on the international level with any attempt to solve a global issue – such as climate change – where every senior leader needs to be driven to tackle that issue otherwise, as we have seen, the efforts will falter. To help motivate a sector, it is important develop and communicate a shared vision for the benefits of the programme. As this survey shows, poor communication is a key reason for failure in a change programme.

Sometimes there are issues of trust between actors in a sector that must be addressed before a change can occur. For example, organisations may not want to share data because they believe that it might impact their competitive advantage.

We think we can roughly split sectors into two groups:

  1. ‘incumbents’ – existing members who are motivated to maintain the status-quo of their established business models
  2. ‘disruptors’ – who want to establish a new model or paradigm for their benefit.

Increasing trust between these two groups can speed up adoption of new ways to use data, whereas a lack of trust can contribute to a fear of data sharing.

External goals or policies, political pressure, economic incentives and a desire for positive PR can all be powerful motivators. To see the value of data, often all that’s needed is evidence of its positive impact when used correctly. Motivations will differ across organisations – finding the right way to motivate a sector is an important early step in getting the programme off the ground.

The third factor is the importance of sustainable investment in a sector-change initiative. Sector change can be ambitious without being expensive, but there are still many different aspects that will require funding. Multiple organisations will need their own funding, and, as is the case with OpenActive and Open Banking, there may be a coordination body which also requires funding for its operational costs.

The costs of supporting or improving the underlying infrastructure during a sector-change programme also needs to be taken into account. For example, a programme involving the development of data standards will require dedicated funding for maintenance and updates – implementing a plan and budget at an early stage will help keep the project on track.

Due to the various angles of funding, each organisation is likely to need a business case to calculate what benefits they expect the change to bring – these could be revenue growth, revenue protection and/or social good. As with OpenActive, innovative early adopters are likely to bear more of the cost as they take more of the risks. It is important that early adopters are aware of, and plan for, the likelihood that they may have to repeat, adapt or scrap the work they do at this stage.

For any sector to change, there needs to be a minimum level of data infrastructure. The level of infrastructure needed will depend on the aims and complexity of the programme and the sector, and the focus of the sector change may even include improving the infrastructure itself.

The ODI defines data infrastructure as consisting of:

  • data assets such as identifiers, registers and datasets
  • the standards and technologies used to curate and provide access to those data assets
  • the guidance and policies that inform the use and management of data assets and the data infrastructure itself
  • the organisations that govern the data infrastructure
  • the communities involved in contributing to or maintaining it, and those who are impacted by decisions that are made using it.

Some of this data infrastructure may sit within organisations in the sector – for example corporate IT systems and data governance policies – but other elements may be external or shared, for example a standards body or regulator.

Another part of establishing a sector’s readiness for change includes assessing what data is collected, shared or published, and by whom. Barriers at this stage might include:

Hence, supporting and possibly improving data infrastructure – and looking at how this infrastructure operates across the sector – is a key step to take before launching a sector-change programme.

To make a change successful, there also needs to be sufficient data/digital literacy and skills across a sector, and arrangements in place for further upskilling as required.

Different roles require different skills: while IT/data specialists need to have a comprehensive knowledge of the technical requirements, senior leaders may only need an overview. It is important to recognise that most jobs now have some interaction with data, and that data literacy – an understanding of data and its benefits – is an important skill.

In our manifesto we outline that: ‘data must inspire and fuel innovation. It can enable businesses, startups, governments, individuals and communities to create products and services, fuelling economic growth and productivity.’

Following on from this, we suggest that a demand for data to be ‘published with purpose’ can provide a springboard for a sector to change to meet that need. The demand may be to use the data to create products and services; analyses and insights; stories and visualisations; or to help with decision making.

Sharing data does not necessarily achieve change on its own – it may need to be published as well-structured open data to allow people to build useful services or make better decisions. A good example of this is GotToVote! in Kenya, where Code for Kenya turned what was a lengthy data dump into a valuable voting tool to address boundary changes.

In the case of OpenActive – an ODI-partnered initiative which uses data to help people get active – innovators play a key role in creating value for the data publishers. They use open data about activity opportunities to offer new ways for a leisure centre or activity provider to reach customers, and ultimately support their bottom line. Innovators could be small startups or large established organisations, such as Public Health England’s Change4Life campaign.

In this case, innovators’ demand for data encouraged the physical activity sector to unlock more data, leading to the launch of our OpenActive Accelerator, in partnership with Sport England, which supports startups creating new tech products that get people active.

The ODI manifesto states: ‘Everyone must benefit fairly from data. Access to data and information promotes fair competition and informed markets, and empowers people as consumers, creators and citizens.’

Equity can involve a fair distribution of both the costs involved in running the programme, and the potential benefits. The AMR programme showed clearly how sharing data about antimicrobial resistance surveillance programmes across the pharmaceutical industry brought together potentially competing organisations to explore the benefits of sharing data through a central platform.

OpenActive saw the need for equity in several ways. Firstly, making the data ‘open’ led to a more equitable playing field across the sector, which allowed a more diverse mix of innovators to use the data in different ways. Secondly, to have maximum impact, it was identified that the data needed to create value for both publishers and data users. Thirdly, it noted that any coordinator of a sector-change programme (the ODI’s role in the OpenActive programme) must be independent and act equitably to all parties.

Alongside the legal and practical use of data it is important to consider the ethical use of data. Not only must we comply with laws such as consumer protection, anti-discrimination, data protection and wider human rights, but also consider the ethical issues around using data, such as communicating risks, and minimising any negative effects on individuals.

As we say in our manifesto‘the choices made about what data is collected and how it is used should not be unjust, discriminatory or deceptive.’ Ethics should not be an afterthought or something to consider only after something has gone wrong. Sector change programmes – and any data project – should embed data ethics from the beginning, alongside compliance and regulation requirements.

Effective collaboration is essential to make a sector change successful. A crucial part of this is engaging with the community to share a vision. In the OpenActive programme, for example, advocacy from peers on the value of the programme helped convince any wavering data publishers. Collaboration is particularly important to to develop standards (such as common terminology or formats), and to agree on data sharing and funding mechanisms.

It is important to note that in sector change, and in general, the data publisher and the data innovator are often separate entities. As such, different parts of the sector, with different capabilities and funding, need to engage with each other. This helps to ensure a plurality of experience, skills and voices represented through a sector-change process.

The other element of engagement is with the wider community – with citizens, consumers, media, advocates, researchers, civil society and government. Data programmes use data about people – and we must talk with and listen to the people whose problems we are trying to help solve. As well as the ethical reasons for transparency and communication, these groups can encourage, advise and advocate for the sector change and can evaluate and provide evidence for the programme.

Next steps

As this sector-readiness project intersects and overlaps with other ODI R&D work, this project is closing and the learnings from this research will now be fed into those related projects, notably Scaling data innovation, New service delivery models and Global Data Infrastructure for International Trade. The insights will also be utilised in current and future sector change projects the ODI is involved with.

If you have any feedback or questions please contact Mike Rose on Twitter or email.