The United Kingdom still doesn’t have a National Data Strategy.

The idea has been stuck in development hell for years, and the delay has already had an impact. Had a strategy been in place before the coronavirus pandemic, there would have been rules and guidelines in place to help the sharing of data and information between organisations like, for example the Department of Health and Social Care and the NHS.

A recent opinion poll for the Open Knowledge Foundation found that nearly two-thirds of people in the UK believe a government data strategy would have helped in the fight against COVID-19.

Just over a year ago, we submitted a written submission to the UK Government’s consultation on the National Data Strategy, which can be read here.

We stressed that 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, we warned, businesses, individuals and public bodies would not be able to play a full role in the interconnected world of today and tomorrow.

Allowing people to make better decisions and choices informed by data will boost the UK’s economy through greater productivity, but not without the necessary investment in skills.

Our proposals included:

  • A data literacy training programme open to local communities to ensure UK workers have the skills for the technological jobs of the future.
  • Greater use of open licences, granting the general public rights to reuse, distribute, combine or modify works that would otherwise be restricted under intellectual property laws.

With a clear commitment from the Government, the UK has an opportunity to be at the forefront of a global future that is fair, free and open.

Inevitably, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the work of government. But a parliamentary question from Labour MP Ian Murray, Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, has revealed the government still ‘aims’ to publish the strategy in 2020.

It’s disappointing that this is not a cast-iron commitment, although it is certainly a target that we hope will be achieved, not least because at the end of this year the Brexit transition period comes to an end and there are serious question to be addressed about the post-Brexit landscape in the UK. Last year, an updated directive on open data and the re-use of public sector information was entered into force by the European Commission. As part of this directive, EU member states – which at the time included the UK – agreed that a list of ‘high-value’ datasets would be drawn up to be provided free of charge.

These high-value datasets will fit into the following categories:

  • Geospatial
  • Earth observation and environment
  • Meteorological
  • Statistics
  • Companies and company ownership
  • Mobility

A research team is currently working to create this list of high-value datasets, with the aim of publishing a draft report by September 2020. An Implementing Act is due to be placed before the European Commission for approval in 2021 and EU Member States have until July 2021 to make sure that these datasets are available as open data and published via APIs.

What we don’t know is if the UK Government will adopt these same datasets to help business and civil society create new opportunities post-Brexit, and in a COVID-19 landscape. Another parliamentary question from Ian Murray asked this, but the answer doesn’t commit the government to following suit. The question was answered by the Minister of State for Media and Data, but it was announced earlier this month that the Prime Minister has taken away responsibility for the government use of data from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and handed it to the Cabinet Office. What happens next will therefore be of huge interest to all of us who work to promote open data.

This week the European Commission published a roadmap on the digital economy and society. It is vital the UK is not left behind on the road to a more open society.