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PA OPINION

Setting the stage for data to become a critical national asset

The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (the Integrated Review) has put data front and centre as a strategic asset and enabler. It acknowledges data’s role in today’s adaptive digital world as a driver of competitive advantage and international trade.

The ability to efficiently acquire and exploit data is the common foundation for all four of the Government’s Strategic Framework objectives and will be fundamental for aligning investment with ambition over the next decade. As the UK sets the stage for data to become a critical national asset, three key actions will be required:

Develop data science and literacy capabilities

While the Integrated Review sets out a compelling vision, implementation is no insignificant undertaking. It requires an escalation in the depth and pace at which the UK can develop data science and literacy as a core skill. Advances in technology have made powerful data exploitation capabilities significantly more accessible to private sector organisations. However, the UK needs to improve the ‘data dexterity’ of its public servants. This will take concerted effort and investment to build skills and make the move to data-centric Government organisations. As a priority, the UK needs to focus on career pathways, embedding data science into primary, secondary and further education, and making it a core workforce skill to plug the gap.

Set the standard for digital freedom and exploitation

Establishing a global digital and data hub within an open economy will need a free flow of data, which means overcoming an already divergent legal and ethical landscape, even among current allies. Accelerating innovation and new data capabilities will require equivalent pace in legal, policy and regulatory changes, which will depend upon streamlined and trusted processes for creating and ratifying international frameworks.

The UK has an opportunity to promote digital freedom over authoritarianism, and to set the benchmark for safe and ethical use of data within an open society. It can do this by championing international standards for data sharing and exploitation, in doing so becoming global leaders in a new open international order. The UK will also need to find ways to overcome the proven challenges in establishing longevity in international data agreements. The Safe Harbour Agreement, superseded by the EU-US Privacy Shield, demonstrates the issues of a fast-paced digital world – both were found invalid by the European Court of Justice as domestic US legislation conflicted with changing EU needs.

Invest in the systems to generate insight at pace

Technology has enabled access to a broader scale and scope of data than ever before. The value in this connected data needs to translate into knowledge and insight, and quickly. At a strategic level, the UK’s ability to detect, understand, attribute and act will be through data-driven decisions. At an operational level, the advantage will be achieved by those who can develop real-time data insights to promote prosperity, project influence and protect people from harm.

This requires new tools that assist decision-making and new skills in making high-quality decisions in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous operational situations, balancing large quantities of data from diverse sources. Accelerating the ‘time to value’ means investing in systems to ‘do the heavy lifting’. Automation, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) are now common tools for data analytics but are yet to be proven at scale across government. There is significant opportunity to use AI to derive insights from massive disparate data sets that people would never be able to identify using traditional analytical methods. Along the way, legal and ethical implications, such as biases being built into AI and ML models, must be considered, as well as how best to blend human expertise with technology.

 

If these areas can be addressed, the Integrated Review presents a powerful and optimistic message to the public and private sectors: that the UK is going to take the lead on the global stage, with the new Central Digital and Data Office, and the Office for Talent, set to provide enduring functions that will govern and develop data as a critical national asset that enables the necessary adaptive approach.

The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy

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