Full-fibre primary schools and the Mancunian skills gap – 10 tech announcements you may have missed in the Budget

Although big-ticket technology announcements were largely absent from the chancellor’s speech, the Budget contained a number of initiatives and investments in digital and data

Credit: Carl de Souza/PA Archive/PA Images

It took no more than a minute or two of the 2017 budget for chancellor Philip Hammond to talk up the Conservative government’s technology credentials.

“The world is on the brink of a technological revolution that will transform the way we work and live, and change living standards for generations to come,” he said.

In embracing this revolution in the coming months and years, the government would “choose to run towards change”, he pledged.

Judging by the tenor of the 2018 budget, which Hammond delivered this week, over the past 12 months that run may have slowed to something of a light jog. Outside of the announcement of a 2% “digital services tax” on the UK revenues of web giants such as Facebook and Google, there was little mention of technology this time out.

But strewn across the full text of the Budget Red Book are a number of digital- and data-related investments and initiatives, covering infrastructure, skills, policy, and service delivery. 

PublicTechnology has gone through the Budget – all 106 pages of it – with a fine-toothed comb; here’s some of the digital and data detail you may have missed.


‘Future Mobility Zones’
One big commitment of capital funding announced by Hammond this week was an extra £6bn for the National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF), which will be increased from £31bn to £37bn. A £90m chunk of this money will be funnelled into the Department for Transport’s Transforming Cities Fund to back a project to create “Future Mobility Zones” in UK towns and cities. Some £20m of this has been ring fenced for the West Midlands. The zones “will trial new transport modes, services, and digital payments and ticketing”.

Full fibre primary schools
A total of £200m in additional funding is to be put into plans to “pilot innovative approaches to deploying full fibre internet in rural locations”. The first such approach will be installing fibre in primary schools and then running a “voucher scheme” to allow nearby homes and businesses to take advantage. This method will initially be trialled in areas including Cornwall, the Welsh Valleys, and the Scottish borders.

An ‘industry-led’ approach for Pensions Dashboards 
The Department for Work and Pensions is leading the process of creating Pensions Dashboards – an online tool where citizens will be able to monitor and manage all of their pension pots, including personal, employer, and state pensions. The DWP will shortly be launching a consultation on the project, with a focus on “how an industry-led approach could harness innovation while protecting consumers”. This endeavour will see the department working with commercial pensions providers and fintech firms. The Pensions Dashboards project will receive an extra £5m in funding for the 2019/20 year.

Science and innovation at the heart of government’
To help promote the use of “cutting-edge science and innovation in government”, the Budget makes provision for a £50m-a-year fund to be dedicated to solving the biggest challenges facing the public sector. This is likely to include areas such as “public health and cybersecurity”. Beginning in 2021/22, money will be spent on programmes that bring together government and the commercial sector.

Digital-enabled manufacturing
As part of a £1.1bn boost to the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, the government is to commit as much as £121m “to support the transformation of manufacturing through digitally enabled technologies”. This could include examining the use of virtual reality and the internet of things, according to the Budget. The challenge fund will also dedicate £78m to driving innovation in “electric motor technology”.

Mancunian digital skills
As part of a wider programme of “skills pilots”, the government is to put £3m into a pilot programme of training courses designed to combat a digital skills gap in and around Greater Manchester. In another investment in skills, the government will put as much as £50m behind its new Turing Artificial Intelligence Fellowships in a bid to “attract, retain and develop world-leading research talent” in the field. A further £100m will be put into “an international fellowship scheme”, according to the Budget.

Quantum leap
The Budget augmented a recent £80m government investment in developing quantum technologies with an additional £235m funding package. This includes a £35m plan to establish and “support a new national quantum computing centre”.

Review of algorithmic bias
The government’s Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation has been asked to undertake a study of how the use of data is “shaping people’s online experiences”. This exercise will also involve an examination of “the potential for bias in decisions made using algorithms”. Elsewhere, the Government Digital Service will work alongside with the recently established Office for AI to “review how government can use AI, automation and data in new ways to drive public sector productivity and wider economic benefits”. The insights gained from this review will feed into the innovation strategy currently being drawn up by GDS. The Data Science Campus of the Office for National Statistics, meanwhile, will also be teaming up with GDS “to conduct an audit of data science capability across the public sector”. 

Digital Catapult
The Digital Catapult – a government-backed agency dedicated to driving uptake of new digital technologies – is to receive additional funding. This will be invested across its operations in London, Brighton, the north east, and Northern Ireland. The extra £115m investment will be shared with the Medicines Discovery Catapult in Alderley Edge.

Blockchain investigations
The Budget revealed that the Digital Catapult will be running a series of “field labs” to explore possibilities around the use of blockchain and other distributed-ledger technologies. These explorations will include input from “businesses, investors, and regulators in a range of areas, including in construction and the management of goods in ports”, the government said.

Sam Trendall

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