Data is the new utility

by Victoria Thomason

30 May 2017

By Pamela Cook


Recently, I spoke on a panel session at Data Innovation Day. The theme for this year’s event was ‘Smart Cities’ and the panel session itself focused on how we can use citizen data to deliver better public services. There were three key takeaways from this panel session; I’ll discuss each in theme in turn in this Data Innovation Series. This first article covers the first theme – data as the new utility.


This month, the Economist wrote an article on how the world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data. Similarly, at our panel session Albert Seubers from ATOS compared the value of data to that of water, energy and food. This is because in our digital era, we leave data footprints wherever we go and whatever we do. Our smartphones know our home address without us programming it in; Google knows what to suggest based on our previous searches; and Facebook filters our newsfeed based on what it thinks we want to see. This is all powered by data. Data has become intrinsic to the very structure and working of our lives.


Bringing data together

The concept of smart cities looks at how we can use the mountains of data that is collected every day to improve services for citizens, such as in education, housing, health and social care. Data is collected from a variety sources and largely held in siloed departments across government and private companies. The data itself has a finite amount of usefulness when viewed in its isolated context. However, when data guardians work together to share data, this opens a whole host of opportunities for service improvement. Whilst different government departments may only hold small pieces of information on each citizen, each dataset adds a new element of understanding to help build a 360-view of the citizens within smart cities. Having a better knowledge of service users is vital to ensure their needs are met.


Data quality is crucial for service improvement to work

However, gaining a more holistic citizen view is about more than simply packaging data together from various sources. The technology and systems needs to be in place to ensure the data is accurate; missing or incorrect information can have severe consequences. If members of the public find that data being held about them is incorrect they’re likely to lose trust in the institutions holding and using that data. As active citizen consent is required for sharing and usage of data, loss of trust can have a devastating impact on plans to use that data to improve public services. Additionally, if services for vulnerable people, such as social care, are prioritised and data is missing from the datasets being used to make intervention decisions, there is the danger that at-risk individuals may not receive the care or support they need.

Something Geert Mereels, Head of E-government with the Belgium government spoke about during the session was the public’s ability to view and challenge all governmental data held about them. In Belgium, data quality is seen as everybody’s job and the data holders work with the public to ensure that inaccuracies are dealt with swiftly. Belgium is widely recognised as being proactive in their strategy of prioritising data quality and transparency, which has a positive effect on public trust and service efficiency.


The need for data security

In bringing together disparate datasets in this way, a lot more information can be extracted from them using powerful technology. As such, the data itself becomes a lot more valuable: to quote Aristotle, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As ever, with new technology comes new challenges and protecting people’s data is a fundamental requirement of holding, sharing and using it. Therefore, before any large-scale projects are undertaken, sufficient planning is needed to ensure the security of these valuable datasets. The consequences of insufficient security can be severe and the more sensitive and valuable the data, the higher the possibility of cyber attacks. Only recently, we saw how outdated computer systems left the NHS open to a ransomware attack that affected NHS Trusts across the country. If data truly is the world’s new most valuable resource, we have a responsibility to protect it.