Web creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee on the future of data

Data literacy will drive innovation, easing global warming and empowering citizens, according to Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Sir Nigel Shadbolt

Billions of us use the World Wide Web as our primary tool to interact online. Today, its creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee is on a new mission: to ensure data is used appropriately to create the public sector of the future.

Berners-Lee partnered with artificial intelligence (AI) expert Sir Nigel Shadbolt in 2012 to found the Open Data Institute (ODI). At the ODI Summit in early November, the pair of computer scientists warned that now is a pivotal moment. As we hurtle into the digital era powered by data-hungry algorithms and AI, it’s critical to collaborate with good intentions and maximise the potential of technology, for the sake of the planet and its inhabitants. 

The acceleration of digital transformation necessitated by the coronavirus chaos is exciting, but there’s a responsibility for authorities around the world to keep pace with this incredible change. Those in power must set standards, encourage data to be opened and shared responsibly, and narrow the ever-widening skills gap. The quicker that data literacy in both private and public sectors can be improved, the better for everyone.

As Berners-Lee points out, the pandemic has unconsciously boosted public awareness of how data can save and enrich lives. “Something that took off hugely was communication through data, with the government telling us to ‘flatten the curve’ [and limit the spread of the virus],” he says. “I would imagine that the data literacy of the general population has gone up a chunk.” 

Driving change 

By improving their data literacy, leaders and members of the public could understand and challenge how data is presented, Shadbolt suggests. As public sector technology and its application develops in the coming years, fuelled by more and better-quality data, greater scrutiny will help shape products and services for the digital era. 

The opening of more data sources will super-charge the public sector of the future and drive innovation, says Shadbolt. The chair of the ODI – who’s been principal of Jesus College at Oxford University since 2015, among other roles – points to the success of open data pioneer Transport for London (TfL). Often held up as an exemplar of open data, TfL offers data feeds and guidelines about air quality, cycling, walking, planning and more. 

In 2017, Deloitte calculated that TfL’s release of open data generated annual economic benefits and savings of up to £130 million for travellers, the capital and the organisation itself. Additionally, many private businesses have taken advantage and cashed in on the open application programming interfaces (APIs).

“Imagine that a lot of data relevant to everything climate-related was just being routinely published using standard APIs,” Shadbolt continues. “It’s what we saw happen with TfL. And there’s just a bunch of sectors and areas to go for.”

However, it can be dangerous to blindly follow data. Shadbolt wonders whether Boris Johnson’s refrain during the pandemic that the government would “follow the data” to justify its pandemic-related decisions coronavirus sent out the wrong message. “It was quite a bad phrase, in some respects,” he says, “because while there should be a basic ability to understand the data, we need to interrogate and critique that data.”

Data can be good, but it never gives a complete picture

Questioning data sources is not just essential to fight fake news on social media and elsewhere – it will also enable public sector organisations to build greater trust, Berners-Lee says. With more connected data, they could trigger a shift from reactive to proactive services. 

It’s a virtuous circle, because trusted and quality datasets will widen the possibilities and reach of public sector technology and empower citizens. “Provenance is important for data quality, and provenance is important for trust,” he says.

Building trust

For example, Berners-Lee says a doctor should be able to look at the digital notes of a person with diabetes and open a data narrative explaining how this diagnosis was made and other relevant history. Public trust in the data used by the public sector is central to the adoption of technologies and services, he points out.

The general public seemed to go into different categories regarding coronavirus data, Berners-Lee says. Some accepted recommendations for pushing the curve down, but others “don’t listen to the same people as we might. Instead, they find groups of people –

the conspiracy theorists – usually on social media, who make up all kinds of strange things about the pandemic, vaccines or climate change, for that matter.”

Shadbolt says experts act in good faith with the information available at a specific time, but their visibility is limited if they have scant amounts of data. The wider the variety of good quality data sources, the fuller the picture. “We’ve talked a lot about how it’s important, particularly during the pandemic, not to regard the scientists, medics and people in white coats as telling you the whole truth,” he says. “They’re trying to give the best information, very often under conditions of considerable uncertainty.” We must take a nuanced approach, he argues, understanding that “the data can be good, but it never gives a complete picture.”

Those in the public sector and beyond must be “critically reflective” of data. “All our responses are made, in a sense, standing on the edge of error. But that’s what science is: it can believe something is wrong and can revise what we believe as these things unfold.” 

While the collaborative use of data will create smarter public services in the UK, this approach is crucial on a larger scale if humanity is to overcome its biggest challenges. It’s been vital in the response to coronavirus, while a cooperative, non-competitive and can-do attitude is also essential to reduce global warming.

“We’ve just been living through an existential crisis – a global pandemic – and we’re in the midst of another one unfolding, with the climate challenge,” says Shadbolt. “Data will be an essential part of [solving this]: the infrastructure, the institutions we might need, the trust we have [in its use], and our literacy.”

Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific advisor, echoed this view at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). He warned that the challenge of global warming is a greater risk than Covid-19 and more people will die from it than the pandemic if the public sector doesn’t act quickly. Vallance also said the climate crisis could last 100 years and require “a combination of technology and behavioural change”.

Provenance is important for data quality, and provenance is important for trust

Shadbolt concurs but stresses that opening data and boosting cross-sector collaboration will accelerate meaningful change on a macro and micro scale and increase the capabilities of public sector technology. “While environment data is in the news because of COP26, there is other information that can help spur action,” he says, hinting that greater transparency from public sector organisations will ratchet up pressure on private companies to keep clean. For example, he notes that data on utility companies discharging sewage will help the Environment Agency, which struggles with funds and support. 

“We are starting to gain a sense of what data’s going to make a difference – everything from emissions to insulation. There’s a whole network of interconnected data types that we can bring together, much of it held in the public sector, and some of it held in the private sector,” he says. “We need to begin that work on joint public-private enterprises, though we are beginning to see the private sector, with its commitments to ESG, saying ‘we now have to have a public purpose as well as a private one.’” Publishing some of this data “would be a great first step”, he adds. 

Information advantage

Berners-Lee and Shadbolt were appointed as information advisors to the government in June 2009. The duo led the team that developed data.gov.uk, a single point of access for UK non-personal governmental public data. This offers real-time information on a range of topics, such as government spending, digital service performance, crime and justice, transport and more.

When the pair founded the not-for-profit ODI nine years ago, the mission was to “connect, equip and inspire people around the world to innovate with data”. Almost a decade later, the ODI continues to provide free and paid-for training courses and learning materials both in-house and online. These cover theory and practice surrounding data publishing and use. The ODI has long championed open data as a public good, but always emphasised that effective governance models are necessary to protect citizens.

Some 20 months since the start of the coronavirus crisis, people are beginning to appreciate the ODI’s work and concerns around data standards. “When the pandemic began we provided a data publication template,” says Shadbolt. “The challenge was so many people wanted to contribute data. It needed sorting and we had to determine what was helpful. If there was just a little more awareness around open standards to publish data, so that it is in a more interoperable format, it would be better for everyone.”

For public sector technology to thrive, however, public trust is critical, says Berners-Lee, who notes a difference in attitudes to tech in the UK compared to the US. “Typically in the UK people trust the government and don’t trust [the tech] industry, and in the US people trust industry and don’t trust the government,” he says. More should be done to assuage fears about how tech giants handle user data, he adds. “To an extent, it’s how people are brought up and therefore cultural. But for people in the UK to trust these large American companies then you need to have serious legislation and regulation.”

The backlash against the allegedly avaricious Facebook, which according to a recent whistleblower puts user engagement ahead of safety, is a cautionary tale for public sector organisations seeking to embrace technology solutions and partner with companies without fully knowing their policies on data privacy and other questionable values, suggests Berners-Lee. More than ever, at the outset, digital products must be “good by design”.

Data management is integral to these processes. Here too the coronavirus has proven useful, testing the robustness of so-called ‘trusted research environments’. “In these environments, the data stays behind a firewall and it’s modelled and analysed with tools that can go behind the firewall,” Shadbolt explains. “The data never actually leaves the highly secure data storage areas where 47 million patient records are linked, but incredible insights are gained.”

Offering an alternative, he says: “The other solution is to leave the data with the people who generate it, which is very local. There are different technical solutions there and there are different institutions we can build to share this. It’s a complicated area, but the ODI is looking very carefully at making data sharing more effective.”

Unfinished business

What does the future hold for the ODI as it nears its 10-year anniversary? “We started off explaining to people working in the public sector how to put your data on the web,” says Berners-Lee. Now, however, “we realise it’s important to cover the whole spectrum, from public to private, but it’s also about developing policies as well.”

This assessment chimes with Shadbolt. “There is unfinished business,” he says. “The whole commitment to getting data out there was started with open data initiatives that were very much focused around the public sector – everything from hospital data to educational data to transport data. That work has gone well. We’re now looking at extending those learnings. As governments move on [in their digital transformation journeys], you want to ensure that momentum is kept up and that the infrastructure is there to help sustain publishing the data out.”

Returning to the global climate crisis, he says of the ODI’s mission: “We did anticipate that in trying to build a trusted research data ecosystem it would become one of the consequential questions for the future of the planet and the future of our wellbeing. There’s a huge amount of work to do. We’re trying to make sense of it in terms of programmes of work, from data literacy to institutions, from ethics to infrastructure.”

Shadbolt adds: “Fundamentally the ODI’s work is about listening, it’s about trying to take ideas and put them in a format that allows that to scale. We may be an organisation of 60-odd people but we think we can have a fantastic impact and so we need to reach out and sustain ourselves to make a better future.”

This article was first published in Raconteur’s Public Sector Technology report in December 2021

How business and government can reap rewards of open data

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.”

Chicken-and-egg scenario

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

FSA CIO on her career in tech: ‘It’s where the future is already happening’

The FSA’s groundbreaking CIO talks the future of technology careers, data openness and going beyond the status quo

What makes a successful chief information officer (CIO) in 2021? Ask Julie Pierce, the trailblazing director of openness, data and digital at the Food Standards Agency (FSA), who ranked fifth overall and was the highest-placed woman in the venerated CIO 100 list for 2019. 

Having learnt the news about the CIO 100, which recognises the UK’s “most transformational and disruptive” CIOs, Pierce recalls feeling “happy [and] honoured”. Following a pause, she adds: “And surprised.” Why? “If someone had told me I would be recognised at this level back when I was, say, 30, I would have thought it impossible, for so many reasons. So my reaction was: ‘Oh my God!’”

To an extent, her reaction to the accolade is understandable in an industry dominated by men. But the recognition is also a cause for celebration. Given that only one in six technology specialists in the UK are female and just 10% are IT leaders, the Bristol-based Pierce proudly serves as a role model for other women seeking to reach the top in tech.

The incredulity is misplaced, though, when one considers her groundbreaking 41-year career. After starting off with a misstep in oil exploration – more of which below – she enjoyed 13 years as a consultant at PwC, where she was one of the first female partners. Her CV also includes stints with the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police Service.

More recently, Pierce has excelled as CIO at the Animal and Plant Health Agency and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). In August 2015, she moved from Defra to the FSA, a non-ministerial government department which monitors risks and issues of concern regarding food.

The case for data openness

As director of openness, data and digital (“a long but pretty cool title”) at the FSA, she performs a raft of duties. These include the CIO role, while also covering science and Wales. 

Importantly, Pierce is a fervent advocate of open and transparent data. Indeed, in the public sector, and further afield, the FSA is often held up as an exemplar of what is possible through opening up data. This progressiveness is in no small part thanks to Pierce.

“Being open and transparent [with data] is so important to me,” she says. “And at the FSA it is fundamental to our core being; we are here to be open and transparent on behalf of the consumer.” 

Pierce explains that her agency raises the alarm when “things are not quite right for consumers concerning food safety and authenticity”. As an example, she points to a recently implemented service that uses predictive analytics and machine learning to monitor global risks. 

The FSA publishes 70% of its datasets. Pierce argues convincingly that fellow CIOs should push to open data and drive collaboration internally and externally. The FSA has been trying to persuade businesses to be open and publish their data, she says.

At the FSA it is fundamental to our core being; we are here to be open and transparent on behalf of the consumer 

“We can see the large amount of data collected about food in public and private sector. For instance, we can see the opportunities from data-rich digital platforms where they may be sitting on real insights as to food risk, allowing us all to take action before something goes wrong.”

Under Pierce’s direction, the FSA has “put as much effort as possible in the last few years” to develop the infrastructure necessary to open data and make it “easier for businesses to consume that data”.

Beyond the status quo

Pierce believes in “transformation through the application of modern digital technology and insights from predictive analytics to business problems”. And in a clarion call for fellow CIOs, she has urged on LinkedIn: “Let’s be really different; let’s go beyond merely automating the status quo.”

Pierce has always sought to go beyond the status quo, but she originally had little interest in technology. Having graduated from the University of Wales, Bangor, in 1980 with a first-class degree in mathematics and physical oceanography, Pierce sought a hands-on role in the oil-exploration industry. The fact that it was “completely male-dominated” made it more attractive because of the challenge.

Ironically, she switched directions and flourished when the path was blocked in her chosen profession because of her gender. As a woman, she was forbidden to step foot on either the boats or the rigs. Pierce’s impressive career in tech can be traced back to that early change of tack. 

Let’s be really different; let’s go beyond merely automating the status quo

However, the combination of fierce ambition and talent has elevated her. It is this desire that modern CIOs must possess to excel, she suggests.

“My FSA role includes the CIO and a lot more. That in itself is one of the things I’m most proud of: that I have risen and gone above the CIO role into other aspects of the business.” Indeed, to secure a place in the boardroom, CIOs must demonstrate the many different ways they can add value. 

Pierce says there has never been a more exciting time to embark on a career in tech and climb the ranks to CIO and above. “It’s an absolutely fascinating sector, as it’s moving and evolving so quickly,” she says. “It’s becoming more relevant, ubiquitous, and essential to everything we do. Therefore, you can choose any sector to work in – food, healthcare, financial services, whatever.

“What makes a career in tech so attractive nowadays is that it is accessible in so many more ways compared to when I began. You can come in through some of the more innovative data ideas, such as artificial intelligence or robotics, or via looking at accessibility and the way users engage with the tech, or the hardware route.”

After a final pause, she adds: “It’s the place really where I think the future is already happening.”

This article originally appeared in Raconteur’s Future CIO report in September 2021