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A fourth industrial revolution?

The data revolution isn’t as new as you might think...

By Raj Mack  

Mandatory Credit: Photo by View Pictures/REX/Shutterstock (8896608a) New Street Station, Concourse With Train Departure Board. New Street Station Birmingham, Birmingham, United Kingdom. Architect: Azpml Atkins And Haskoll, 2015. New Street Station Birmingham, Birmingham, United Kingdom. Architect: AZPML Atkins and Haskoll, 2015.

Read more of Prospect’s “Data as infrastructure” report

Is data really the “new fuel” of the economy or is it a case of “the Emperor’s new clothes”?

It seems today that everyone is talking about the opportunities of data as the “fuel” that will drive the new economy, with reports from McKinsey, the Open Data Institute and others citing values in the millions and trillions that could be added to the economy through better release and reuse of data in all its forms, open, closed, commercial, big, personal. Terms like the “age of data” or “data is the raw material of a new industrial revolution” are often quoted by enthusiastic advocates.

But the public sector has been using data for years in decision-making in developing mobility plans, and regeneration plans. In the private sector, imagine what Amazon or the supermarkets collect through their “loyalty cards,” and how this gives them detailed insights into their customers preferences and behaviour.

Birmingham City Council understands the value of its data, but the issues and challenges are much more complex. As a local authority, we deliver a diverse range of services, supported by multiple databases and systems. Data is recorded in different formats depending on the systems and it is often captured and used for specific or one-off use and cannot be reused for alternative purposes. Many of the records and datasets are duplicated and keeping track of what data to extract and who to share it with still remains a significant challenge.

“You cannot develop strategies and processes in isolation. It is essential to work with entrepreneurs, data scientists and data enthusiasts”

Quality, format and release of data—in a cost effective way—are key issues faced by Birmingham City Council as well as other local authorities. Despite the rhetoric about the economic opportunities that open data and big data agenda offers, this has to be put against cost. Formatting and releasing large amounts of data costs money and it can sometimes be unclear what direct benefits accrue to the Council.

Nonetheless, Birmingham Council has acted as an exemplar for the region and has established a position of being “open by default.” Several years ago it published an Open Data Strategy and Policy. The council also created an open data portal, the Birmingham Data Factory which makes almost 300 datasets available. It is also in the process of applying the lessons of data management to the transformation of the council’s own services.

However, this has not been without its challenges. Mostly importantly, we realised that you cannot develop strategies and processes in isolation. It is essential to work with entrepreneurs, data scientists and armchair data enthusiasts when deciding what should be released. Just putting out data will not engage the market, or satisfy the public. It will not lead to the creation of new apps and it will not provide greater insights to help us transform our services.

In Birmingham, we established the West Midlands Open Data Forum, which brings together data experts from the Fire and Police services, Transport for West Midlands, the universities, businesses and the Open Data Institute (ODI). Through this group and the council’s wider associations, we have been able to identify both the kinds of information that could be released and that might be of use.

Another significant challenge for Birmingham is the availability of data skills, for its internal staff and also within the community. So it is important to tap into existing local structures and networks that provide communities both with the skills and the confidence to develop their data capabilities.

And though the council still has a dedicated Insights Team, there is still a shortage of skills within the organisation, both from a technical perspective and from a business users’ perspective. A huge amount of data or various kinds is held across the city. This means that data is often pooled  for the development of specific projects—however, our internal structures are not configured in as efficient a way as might be hoped. These issues are now being addressed through the council’s new Digital Strategy.

So to conclude, the council continues to drive the data agenda both internally and externally. The data agenda is still in its infancy and significant technical skills and capabilities still remain a challenge. However, we in our great city, are confident it can be achieved.

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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