Or Lenchner 02 June 2021

Embracing the opportunity of alternative data

Embracing the opportunity of alternative data image

Last month the Government set out the next steps for the UK’s National Data Strategy (NDS). While it generated relatively little in the way of mainstream media coverage, the NDS is arguably one of the most important agendas of the day for policymakers.

‘Data as the new water’ is an oft quoted cliche, but it speaks to the truth that large scale data has transformative potential for almost every part of society when gathered and utilised in the right way. The NDS recognises this with wide-ranging plans to facilitate the UK’s development as a major data economy while unlocking the power of data to enhance public service delivery.

Perhaps most importantly, the NDS heralds a rebalancing of the national narrative around the use of data - moving from a mindset focused on the risks that data presents to one that embraces the opportunities on offer.

Nowhere is this more true than in local government. At the frontline of delivering so many services and charged with placemaking responsibilities, councils have much to gain from the power of data. Councils, and the public agencies they work with, have access to incredibly rich datasets that can drive efficiency and effectiveness in public services. Similarly, the picture of local life painted by the data that councils hold can inform strategic decision making in a whole range of areas. It’s an area of local government innovation that is being well-addressed by a host of sector bodies - from NESTA’s agenda-setting report of five years ago to the LGA’s more recent focus on predictive analytics.

However, for the most part the sector’s focus appears to have been on the data that councils already have in hand - or at least could have access to with robust interoperability and sharing mechanisms. Important as this is, it is only part of the story. Councils have arguably even more to gain by fully embracing the value of external - or alternative data.

Put very simply, the World Wide Web is the richest source of free information that the world has ever known. Every interaction with every website leaves a trail of public data that can be aggregated and structured to provide an incredibly deep level of insight. From buying trends on e-commerce sites to sentiments expressed or product and service reviews posted on social media, the geospatial data that all websites hold offers councils an incredibly detailed portrait of their areas. Collected and used effectively, alongside councils’ existing data sets, the potential to make services more responsive and for place-making policies to accurately reflect local priorities are limitless.

To be clear, this is about utilising data that is already openly available in the public domain, not gaining access to citizens’ private information. The challenges are of accessing this public data at scale, particularly in the face of protectionist website owners seeking to block access to the public data they hold. It’s a challenge that the commercial world is increasingly tackling.

There’s no underestimating the effort needed from local government to fully realise the transformative potential of data - alternative or otherwise. New skills and capabilities need to be developed in data science and analytics; the technology to collate and make effective use of online data needs to be integrated into council systems; and hearts and minds need to be won over among those fearful of dramatic change. The real value of the NDS is perhaps in facilitating this effort, particularly through its commitment to build data skills across the public sector. Councils should make full use of the resources made available through the NDS and push the Government at every turn to deliver on the commitments made in the plan.

By embracing the opportunity of alternative data backed by the commitments of NDS, councils have a huge opportunity to once again be at the vanguard of innovation over the coming years.

Or Lenchner is CEO of Bright Data (Formerly Luminati Networks)

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