Data must be treated as a national asset

Written by Simon Hansford on 10 January 2020 in Opinion

An information monopoly is a danger that must be taken seriously, argues Simon Hansford of UKCloud

Credit: Toby Melville/PA Archive/PA Images

The digital transformations we’ve seen in recent years – from traffic management and air quality to virtual GP access – are achievements to be proud of. However, there’s still more work to be done to ensure that we treat data as a national asset.

With any asset, it’s crucial to understand its value and handle it appropriately. Across the public sector, data can enhance the way governments operate and organisations function; if used intelligently, it can power the publicly-funded resources we use regularly, healthcare being one example. 

Elsewhere, national defence and local government have the potential to be supported by the valuable data sets they yield if harnessed ethically, safely, and wisely. Strict European laws around data protection benefit our citizens, so we must respect them if we are to avoid personal details falling into the wrong hands.

The benefits of a data-driven private sector are more openly discussed and seem more apparent every time we’re confronted with targeted and personalised marketing. But, it’s the untapped benefits for the public sector that could bring profound social change – and local authorities are leading the charge with data innovation in a bid to tackle the issue. 

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Take Barking and Dagenham in east London, a community that’s suffered austerity, which has taken matters into its own hands by developing a social index to map out the needs of its people in a more accurate way, moving away from reliance on economic status indicating the wellbeing of its people. Local data from GPs and schools has been connected to show correlations in wellbeing and loneliness, highlighting patterns and areas of social isolation.

Nonetheless, success stories such as these are only obtainable through effective data-sharing, so it’s important the tech companies tasked with managing all of this information are trustworthy and, above all, accountable. NHS staff have already expressed discontent at the idea of big tech firms handling patient data.

Data monopolies are a real danger, as hoarding assets means no competition in the market, which inevitably raises concerns for local communities and businesses alike. Handing over the reins willingly to one or two companies can have hugely detrimental and very real consequences, as we’ve seen with Carillion. 

Formerly one of the largest suppliers of services to the public sector, Carillion’s collapse starkly illuminated the dangers of a monopoly with any provider. Having employed 43,000 staff globally, around half of them in the UK where it conducted most of its business. Infamously, when operations go awry the responsibility quickly shifts to governments to bail out collapsed firms unable to cope with the strain – so this is something we cannot afford to repeat in the technology space.

Data sovereignty
Jeff Bezos himself has admitted that “one day Amazon will fail”, so putting all our eggs in one or two baskets is neither resilient nor sustainable in the long run. Alongside the banking crisis, Carillion revealed the risk of relying so heavily on one organisation, so we must take tangible steps towards mitigating further devastating collapses for the public sector. 

Handing over the reins willingly to one or two companies can have hugely detrimental and very real consequences, as we’ve seen with Carillion 

The think-tank CEPS estimates that 92% of the western world’s data is currently stored in the US – so this is clearly a pressing problem. The establishment of the Gaia-X project indicates that steps are being made to tackle the issue, as Gaia-X been established specifically to reduce Europe’s data-fuelled dependencies in terms of a critical resource on third parties. As such, it’s paramount the UK follows suit if we are to remain competitive as a nation as Brexit draws closer

Whichever direction the conversation around data sovereignty takes us in, the UK government should treat citizen data with the value it deserves. We must be bold in our ambition and have belief in our capability – or we shall be forever stuck between the rock and the hard place that will be Europe and the US. In turn, the UK will ultimately be deprived of our digital resilience – the national capability that we desperately need amid the continuing geopolitical uncertainty.


About the author

Simon Hansford is chief executive of UKCloud

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