Following an open call for evidence issued by the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Open Knowledge Foundation submitted our thoughts about what the UK can do in its forthcoming National Data Strategy to “unlock the power of data across government and the wider economy, while building citizen trust in its use”. We also signed a joint letter alongside other UK think tanks, civil and learned societies calling for urgent action from government to overhaul its use of data.

Below our CEO Catherine Stihler explains why the National Data Strategy needs to be transformative to ensure that British businesses, citizens and public bodies can play a full role in the interconnected global knowledge economy of today and tomorrow:

Today’s digital revolution is driven by data.

It has opened up extraordinary access to information for everyone about how we live, what we consume, and who we are.

But large unaccountable technology companies have also monopolised the digital age, and an unsustainable concentration of wealth and power has led to stunted growth and lost opportunities.

Governments across the world must now work harder to give everyone access to key information and the ability to use it to understand and shape their lives; as well as making powerful institutions more accountable; and ensuring vital research information that can help us tackle challenges such as poverty and climate change is available to all.

In short, we need a future that is fair, free and open.

The UK has a golden opportunity to lead by example, and the Westminster government is currently developing a long-anticipated National Data Strategy.

Its aim is to ensure all citizens and organisations trust the data ecosystem, are sufficiently skilled to operate effectively within it, and can get access to high-quality data when they need it.

Laudable aims, but they must come with a clear commitment to invest in better data and skills.

The Open Knowledge Foundation I am privileged to lead was launched 15 years ago to pioneer the way that we use data, working to build open knowledge in government, business and civil society – and creating the technology to make open material useful.

This week, we have joined with a group of think tanks, civil and learned societies to make a united call for sweeping reforms to the UK’s data landscape.

In order for the strategy to succeed, there needs to be transformative, not incremental, change and there must be leadership from the very top, with buy-in from the next Prime Minister, Culture Secretary and head of the civil service. All too often, piecemeal incentives across Whitehall prevent better use of data for the public benefit.

A letter signed by the Open Knowledge Foundation, the Institute for Government, Full Fact, Nesta, the Open Data Institute, mySociety, the Royal Statistical Society, the Open Contracting Partnership, 360Giving, OpenOwnership, and the Policy Institute at King’s College London makes this clear.

We have called for investment in skills to convert data into real information that can be acted upon; challenged the government to earn the public’s trust, recognising that the debate about how to use citizens’ data must be had in public, with the public; proposed a mechanism for long-term engagement between decision-makers, data users and the public on the strategy and its goals; and called for increased efforts to fix the government’s data infrastructure so organisations outside the government can benefit from it.

Separately, we have also submitted our own views to the UK Government, calling for a focus on teaching data skills to the British public.

Learning such skills can prove hugely beneficial to individuals seeking employment in a wide range of fields including the public sector, government, media and voluntary sector. 

But at present there is often a huge amount of work required to clean up data in order to make it usable before insights or stories can be gleaned from it. 

We believe that the UK government could help empower the wider workforce by instigating or backing a fundamental data literacy training programme open to local communities working in a range of fields to strengthen data demand, use and understanding. 

Without such training and knowledge, large numbers of UK workers will be ill-equipped to take on many jobs of the future where products and services are devised, built and launched to address issues highlighted by data. Empowering people to make better decisions and choices informed by data will boost productivity, but not without the necessary investment in skills.

We have also told the government that one of the most important things it can do to help businesses and non-profit organisations best share the data they hold is to promote open licencing.

Open licences are legal arrangements that grant the general public rights to reuse, distribute, combine or modify works that would otherwise be restricted under intellectual property laws.

We would also like to see the public sector pioneering new ways of producing and harnessing citizen-generated data efforts by organising citizen science projects through schools, libraries, churches and community groups. 

These local communities could help the government to collect high-quality data relating to issues such as air quality or recycling, while also leading the charge when it comes to increasing the use of central government data.

We live in a knowledge society where we face two different futures: one which is open and one which is closed.

A closed future is one where knowledge is exclusively owned and controlled leading to greater inequality and a closed society.

But an open future means knowledge is shared by all – freely available to everyone, a world where people are able to fulfil their potential and live happy and healthy lives.

The UK National Data Strategy must emphasise the importance and value of sharing more, better quality information and data openly in order to make the most of the world-class knowledge created by our institutions and citizens. 

Without this commitment at all levels of society, British businesses, citizens and public bodies will fail to play a full role in the interconnected global knowledge economy of today and tomorrow.

+ posts

Catherine was the Chief Executive Officer of the Open Knowledge Foundation until August 2020 when she became the Chief Executive Officer of Creative Commons. She represented Scotland in the European Parliament between 1999 and 2019. As Vice-Chair of the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee, Catherine worked on digital policy, prioritising the digital single market, digital skills, better accessibility of digital products for the disabled, as well as citizen online data protection and privacy.