The data challenge
Throughout 2017, in partnership with Atkins, Prospect convened a series or roundtable discussions in the UK’s regions to discuss how data could be used to inform city planning decisions and develop more efficient travel systems. These discussions formed the basis of a special report on “data as infrastructure” which was launched at the 2017 Conservative Party Conference.
There is a recognition that both businesses and individuals place a premium on having access to good transport connections and that data can be key to determining efficient solutions. As Jason Pavey, Atkins’ Market Director for Local Transport, noted during his opening remarks, “historically, I have always looked at data, technology and digital as a way of helping me to be more efficient.” Indeed, data was cited as being key to the successful delivery of “solutions on the ground [that were] quicker, smarter, simpler, and right the first time.”
One of these key challenges and a cross cutting theme which emerged throughout the roundtable programme was concerned about data privacy and ownership: “So, who does own data? What about data privacy and personal privacy?” Pavey noted that, while big data offers many opportunities, “there was a sense of uncertainty” throughout the discussions about how this potential could come to fruition. However, he went on to argue that, while data is the underlying foundation of our city infrastructure, it was important that we recognize that “the world has changed” and that data could be used to “frame the challenges that we face and bring them into sharper view.”
The importance of looking at the use of data within a devolved policy context was also reflected upon. “When we talk about devolution, we don’t just mean political devolution, we also mean the devolution of responsibility as people start to engage with the needs of data and the needs of infrastructure at all those three levels. ” said Jesse Norman MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Roads, Local Transport and Devolution.
“You cannot develop strategies and processes in isolation. It is essential to work with entrepreneurs, data scientists and data enthusiasts”
While reflecting on existing legislative and regulatory frameworks, Norman stressed the importance of determining and setting out “the key steps, that will help us to deliver the digital, physical and the data world in the future.”
Beyond identifying and remedying overburdened transport connections, there is a clear need to address diverse needs and geographical realities. Both Pavey and Norman acknowledged that, while there is an existing policy mandate which has enabled the development of innovative projects to be developed on a city-wide scale, for innovation to scale and become a part of our social fabric, its positive impact must be demonstrated in order to effectively attract public buy-in.
While reflecting on this, Norman closed his speech by framing a problem and accompanying challenge: the UK government is “coming under some significant interest from companies that will want to have drone operating on pavements. And I said that is absolutely fine, how will they deal with disabled people?” Norman continued, “they said that is fine we have methods in which we can recognise disabled people […] and then I said, how about cats? It turns out that drone technology can’t adequately deal with cats.”
“My challenge to the world of digital infrastructure is that I think we can solve the cat problem
On the 3rd of October, Prospect launched Data as Infrastructure. This special report grew out of a series of high-level roundtable meetings over the summer which brought together government, private businesses and the third sector to look at how data is already being used to improve people’s lives and how it has the potential to do so much more.
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