Private sector leaders are wary about sharing data, but if the government offers guidance on artificial intelligence, citizens will benefit from a spirit of innovation
The UK could build a smarter state, improving public services by connecting data from various disparate sources. This will demand greater data sharing between different branches of government – Whitehall, councils, regulators and emergency services – and collaboration between the public and private sectors.
Working together and sharing data in an open, transparent and secure manner will drive innovation through artificial intelligence and ultimately enable and empower citizens. But progress is stalling in the private sector, due to a combination of poor data literacy at the leadership level, fears of ceding a competitive advantage, and a general wariness of unintended consequences. How, then, can the public sector tap into external data sources and encourage a more collaborative spirit?
While there is no simple answer, the government’s National AI Strategy, published in late September, offers some guidance and encouragement for business leaders. The document, which sets out a 10-year plan to make the country a “global AI superpower”, is the country’s first package solely focused on AI and machine learning.
Chris Philp, digital minister at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, is confident the publication will accelerate the development of AI and spark collaboration between public and private sectors. “We want to make sure that there are clear rules, applied ethical principles and a pro-innovation regulatory environment that can create tech powerhouses dotted across the country with the most supportive business environment in the world,” says the Croydon South MP.
He hopes the new strategy will help narrow the skills gap to take advantage of the AI opportunity. And while data sharing is essential, standardisation is just as important; unless data is collected and managed according to common, robust rules, it might be unreliable, which directly impacts on outcomes for the citizen.
Leading by example
Matthew O’Kane is multinational IT consultant Cognizant’s global head of AI solutioning. While he welcomes the National AI Strategy, he argues that the government should take the lead in dialling up collaboration and openness.
“The government can and should set an example in the AI space by ensuring seamless data sharing across government departments,” he says. “Data is the fuel that powers AI, so through the democratisation of data across government, leaders would be able to maximise the potential to extract value from AI investments.”
Fakhar Khalid, chief scientist at Sensat, a cloud-based 3D interactive virtual engineering platform, agrees, and believes universities should open their doors, too. “A clear mindset change is needed from the top down,” he says. “Government must encourage risk in innovation and provide supportive infrastructure and resources to organisations that are willing to take such calculated risks to propel the UK as the global leader in AI innovation.”
According to Khalid, not only are strong, open and transparent collaborative platforms needed within central and local government, but there is also an urgent requirement for more academic research to impact the public and private sectors.
“While the government must lead the country by example, academia needs to invest more in ensuring their higher education research is fed to the industry more often than it currently does. The UK has a strong academic foundation but is slow to turn those into any commercial success.”
Dr Mahlet Zimeta, head of public policy at the Open Data Institute, acknowledges that business leaders tend to “hoard” data, but argues that if sharing is done sensitively and sensibly, everyone stands to benefit.
“Organisations are often concerned about unanticipated use cases for their data and who might gain value from it,” she says. “They are nervous because they don’t know what business model to use. It’s difficult, as most use cases only arise when the data has been made available – it’s a chicken-and-egg scenario.”
However, Zimeta points out that there has recently been a “step change in data sharing”, with a range of industries and sectors collaborating to help the response to the coronavirus crisis. There was truly an international effort; for example, science journals changed their subscription models, allowing open access to their papers to accelerate the speed of research and development.
“It was exciting and shows the benefits to society and the economy when more data is accessible – and as far as I know, no businesses went bankrupt as a result of making their data available.” Finally, while Zimeta calls for more cross-sector collaboration to build a smarter state, she says it’s important not to forget another potential collaborator: citizens themselves. “It’s often presented as ‘private and public’, but civil society is a crucial innovator. This data is vital, too.” She adds: “We need to start thinking about a three-way collaboration.”
Data collaborators, it’s over to you.
This article first appeared in Raconteur’s special report, Building a smarter state and improving public services with connected data, sponsored by Civica, in November 2021