Time to change the data narrative

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James Riley

Angelic structures hang overhead. Unlit wings crossing corridors of black cabs and emblematic red buses, awaiting electricity to declare that Christmas was coming. Collars pulled closely move quickly through autumnal air to the sound of occasional siren and constant conversation.

London is sensuous. It demands you feel it like a beat poet, view it like a painter…and analyse it like a data scientist, says Sir Nigel Shadbolt, chairman of the Open Data Institute (ODI).

Aiming to “connect, equip and inspire” people around the world to innovate with data, the ODI was founded in 2012 by Sir Shadbolt and world wide web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Their founding board members included Lastminute.com founder Baroness Martha Lane Fox and former European Commissioner, Neelie Kroes.

Sir Nigel Shadbolt: Data needs to be something co-created, not collected.

“People have taken a view that something so intangible and esoteric as data cannot have shape and form,” Sir Shadbolt said, sat in a room that is home to the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

“Every time a government comes in it needs to think about recommitting itself to some fundamental principles and one of them should be around what kind of digital state it wants to be. It is something that needs active engineering. It doesn’t happen on its own.”

Painters’ light flows through floor-to-ceiling windows opposite, light shining on light-shining, as Sir Shadbolt talks transparency.

“Countries are seeing opportunities through the Open Government Partnership but periodically the fundamental principles of open data need to be recommitted to, to remind us that some of the most impressive examples of advance have been through datasets people previously thought about keeping secret,” he said.

Launched in 2011, the Open Government Partnership involves 75 countries that work to secure commitments to empower citizens, fight corruption, and use technology to strengthen governance. “The GPS signal, the human genome. These made huge differences as open constructs which would have been much less effective as closed data,” Sir Shadbolt added.

Sir Shadbolt speaks both with knowledge and experience. He is Principal of Jesus College, Oxford; Professorial Research Fellow in the Department of Computer Science, University of Oxford; and a visiting Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Southampton. In 2009, he was appointed the UK’s Information Advisor by Prime Minister Brown, alongside Sir Tim Berners-Lee, to transform access to government’s public data. In 2010, he became one of five independent experts appointed to advise Prime Minister Cameron’s government through the Public Sector Transparency Board. Today, he advises Prime Minister May’s government.

“Governments have got to change the narrative. From data as something collected, to data as something co-created,” he said. “Much of it is created by the individual citizen and consumer, and as such they have rights, expectations and responsibilities. There’s nothing that helps improve the quality of data than people who our vested and interested in the data themselves. The people to whom the data relates.”

He believes challenges – or hackathons as they are often referred – are an important way for people to understand this co-creation.

“The UK has tended to do challenges where there is an existential issue,” he said. “We had really bad floods here a few years ago. It was clear that there was data which should have been released as it could have really helped produce apps to alert people to help them through the process – everything from real time river levels, to ground water flooding.

“The data was released, initially for a limited period. It showed very dramatically where the opportunities lie. It shouldn’t take a crisis – data like this should be part of a public open data infrastructure.”

There is increasing activity in the long Victorian room. It is the inaugural Huxley Summit, named after ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ and self-taught scientist Thomas Huxley who famously argued for Darwin’s theory of evolution against the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, in 1860. Sir Shadbolt is to speak on open data, artificial intelligence, and trust, calling for a national conversation on holding new decision-making systems to account.

“Data is a spectrum that runs from open, through to shared, through to closed – from personal to public. That spectrum has to be understood and respected because of different licensing and social conventions attached to it,” he says.

“Empowering individuals, both as consumers and citizens, with their own data is an important cause. It helps support participation and inclusiveness, reduces inequality and enables people to make a fair judgement as to what is in their interest.”

Sir Shadbolt references France’s Republique Numerique. The law, as part of this Digital Republic, was the first piece of legislation co-created following an open public discussion. In total, 21,330 contributors voted nearly 150,000 times and filed more than 8500 arguments, amendments and proposals for new articles. It introduces, amongst other items, the default of openness of public data and neutrality of the net.

One area where Sir Shadbolt feels more could be done is smart cities. “There are real efforts to get rich data models for the built environment. Yet the actual change in practice on the ground, when people think about data as long-term enduring infrastructure every bit as important as the built fabric, we are still in the foothills of that recognition.”

Billions of low-cost devices are currently being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, provides a living-breathing co-created picture of how cities operate. “Road, railway, energy, water supply – we understand this type of infrastructure as critical to future prosperity yet this is no less true of data assets. Data infrastructure is a core part of our national infrastructure,” he added. This is a view supported in the recently published Data for Public Good, produced by the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission.

Shadbolt believes that as “we try to make sense” of the world through data analytics, visualisation tools will become more and more routine and that populations will need an enhanced level of data literacy.

“This will have to start at school,” he said. “It is not to turn everybody into a data scientist but to at least give people the capacity to understand good data from bad data or indifferent data, the challenges of mixing data up, how to come to a visualisation, and to ask questions about whether data can be treated as a fair sample or of good quality.”

In the words of Huxley, the eponymous scientist after whom the approaching summit is named, to “learn what is true in order to do what is right”.

Kevin Keith is an urbanist, writer and Director of GovHack, the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition www.govhack.org You can find out more about the ODI here www.theodi.org

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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