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Data at heart of UK’s technological transformation, says industry body

UK companies, their employees and the general population must work together to engage in new conversations about big data and its role in our lives, embracing the technology, if the UK is to maintain a strong position on the global stage, said Sue Daley, head of big data and mobile services at industry representative body techUK.

Speaking at the end of the jointly held Big Data and Predictive Analytics summits in London, Daley remarked on the deluge of data produced today, citing a statistic that almost 90 per cent of data available has been created in the last two years. However, she also chose to debunk the oft-quoted platitude that ‘data is the new oil’, pointing out that “one day, oil will run out. Data will continue.”

“Data is in everything. The way we all live, the way we all shop. We’re seeing real big data in action all across our society,” she said, referring to major UK institutions and companies such as Argos, Wimbledon, Tesco, John Lewis, Transport for London, Netflix, Boots, Coca-Cola, NHS, Met Office, Ordnance Survey and Defra, all of whom employ data scientists to leverage the power of big data to unlock hidden opportunities for their operations.

Referring to the emergence of AI and machine learning, Daley spoke of their “power for good, power for social change”, pointing out how the UK is going through a fundamental digital transformation – “all data driven, all focused on data” – citing several recent publications by the UK government, such as the Industrial Strategy, UK Digital Strategy and Made Smarter Review 2017.

The question now, Daley asked, should be: “How do we keep the UK at the forefront of the digital revolution?” If the UK is to achieve the full economic and social opportunities that data-driven technologies have to offer, there are challenges that must be overcome before the UK can establish itself as a world leader in Big Data, data analytics, machine learning and AI technologies.

Accordingly, Daley outlined the five-point plan that techUK has devised as a framework for advancing the national conversation around big data, highlighting the areas that need to be addressed:

  1. Understanding the potential of data.
  2. Bridging the digital skills gap.
  3. Building a culture of data trust and confidence.
  4. Addressing the impending GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), which comes into force on 25 May 2018.
  5. Retaining respect for human values.

“How do you bring everyone in your organisation along on the journey?” Daley asked, noting that while there are many companies in the UK that are already technologically advanced, there are still “a hell of a lot of organisations that aren’t using digital technology”. All companies have the opportunity to harness the advantages of data analytics to improve their business opportunities and so need to begin to understand what it can mean to them.

Identifying the revolutionary opportunities of big data could also help win around the more reluctant individuals. For example, Daley said: “How could [data] help the NHS to predict the needs and wants of the population before it happens?” If big data can help unlock the potential to identify and diagnose cancers and tumours sooner, that is a clear and obvious benefit to everyone in the UK.  

Regarding the digital skills required to drive this future, Daley acknowledged that the UK does have “a big skills gap – and it’s growing… We do not have enough professionals, we do not have enough skilled people.” What is needed, Daley said, is “a smart immigration system”, so that UK-based companies can bring in the people they need from any country.

When it comes to the harvesting and mining of data, there remains the delicate issue of trust with the general public, which is especially sensitive after a string of massive data breaches, hacks and nefarious uses of personal data without express permission – naturally, the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal was much on peoples’ minds.

“What does it mean for individuals? How do we explain it to people?” Daley asked, in terms of building a culture of data trust and confidence, both internally within a business and also beyond to its customers. In this respect, GDPR could prove to be “a really powerful tool for building trust and confidence”, as it will put more power, rights and responsibilities more clearly in individuals’ hands.

For example, at present a company is not required to notify a customer that their data may have been stolen in a hacking breach. Once GDPR comes into force, companies will be required to proactively offer this information.

One of the broad concerns “as we move towards a more automated, AI-driven future” is the question of respect and whether intrinsic human values will be retained in the machine-learning decision-making process. Is the “concept of human flourishing baked in at the core of [new products and services] development”? Accountability, integrity, ethics, values are all questions that need to be discussed if companies want to successfully move the big data conversation forward.

Referring to Brexit, Daley noted that, “we are facing change, we are facing transition”, advising that whatever sector a company is in, everyone must aim to ensure that “data can continue to flow between the UK and EU” the way it does now. TechUK has been working to ensure that the data-flow status quo is retained post-Brexit.

“We have a huge opportunity, Daley concluded. “The future is bright, there’s a lot more to do, but we can keep the UK at the forefront of this data revolution.”

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