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19 September 2020

National Data Strategy

Tag(s): Politics & Economics, Technology
On 9th September the Department for Digital, Culture and Sport announced its new national data strategy. The following is taken from the department’s own website:

“The National Data Strategy asks fundamental questions about what data should and should not be made available. It sets out how to maintain a regulatory regime that is not too burdensome for smaller business and supports responsible innovation.
It will do so through five priority missions:
  • Unlocking the value of data across the economy
  • Securing a pro-growth and trusted data regime
  • Transforming government’s use of data to drive efficiency and improve public services
  • Ensuring the security and resilience of the infrastructure on which data relies
  • Championing the international flow of data”
One of the things that is going wrong with this government is that it constantly makes statements about things it wants to happen. It seems to believe that just by making the statements those things will happen. This has been the character of the whole mismanagement of the pandemic and the consequent problems with education and so on.

A strategy is not a set of hopes. It is a plan to achieve a set of outcomes over time and within budget that is based on a detailed analysis of the landscape, probably including extensive consultation. The missions that are described above are no more than statements of intention and in the website I can find very little detail. Indeed the most detailed reference is to a project with a budget of £2.6 million which in the world of data is a drop in the ocean.

If I were Oliver Dowden, the Digital Secretary, I would be pressing the Prime Minister to scrap the appallingly expensive HS2 project and use a substantial part of that money to develop a genuine national data strategy. In the website they even claim that their government is the leading digital government in the world. It is no such thing. If there is such a thing it is probably the government of Taiwan. It has a dedicated Digital Minister and her name is Audrey Tang.

As an example, let us consider how Taiwan managed its response to the pandemic. First of all when Dr Li Wenliang, the whistleblower in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), posted on social media that SARS was happening again, it started trending on Taiwanese social media that same day. The Centres for Disease Control (CDC) saw what was happening and amplified the messages that had been posted on Taiwanese social media. They immediately started screening all passengers and began health inspections for flights from Wuhan to Taiwan on 1 January. This means that civil society trust the government enough to talk about new SARS outbreaks and the government trusts the people enough to take it seriously.

There have been just 503 cases of Covid-19 reported in Taiwan and only seven deaths.

In Taiwan everybody has plenty of medical masks. If you are an adult, you get nine rationed masks at a very cheap price every two weeks, 10 if you’re a child. Taiwan produces 20 million medical masks a day and even gives some out as international humanitarian aid. Instead of relying on takedowns of fake news and malicious rumours they rely on memetic ways to make sure the clarifications go more viral than conspiracy theories.

This approach to technology combines a commitment not only to the scope it has to bring about change, but also makes it fun and involves citizens. This started with the Sunflower Occupy Movement. In  March 2014 hundreds of young activists, mostly college students, occupied Taiwan’s legislature to express profound opposition to a then new trade pact with the PRC. The pact was under consideration but somewhat secretively and was being fast tracked through Parliament. The occupation drew widespread public support and as a result the government promised greater legislative oversight.

Part of the Occupy Movement considered whether Taiwan should allow PRC so-called market players into the infrastructure of the then new 4G system. The consensus was not to allow PRC components because there are no market players in the PRC, they are de facto state owned. In consequence Taiwan built its own 4G infrastructure without any PRC components. Ms Tang believes it’s healthy for citizens not to trust government or large corporations. Instead the government should make itself transparent to citizens, not their citizens be transparent to the state. Their goal is to get people into the culture of listening to one another, and to build trust between social sector players.

Ms Tang thinks that democracy improves as more people participate. Digital technology is one of the best ways to improve participation as long as the focus is on finding common ground and creating consensus. They use a number of platforms to encourage participation. These are hosted locally, not part of the commercial cloud and importantly take away the reply button. It then becomes a pro-social media rather than antisocial media. Technology needs to be built and controlled by the social sector and supported but not taken over by the public sector, or private-sector. Then the people can truly say that they own the technology. So in terms of the pandemic there is no top-down decree about how to use soap to wash your hands properly or about social distancing rules.

This week Allan Cook, chairman of HS2, in a letter to The Times attempted to defend his outrageous project by claiming that it will offer some of the lowest transport carbon emissions: seven times less than passenger cars and 17 times less than domestic air travel. This is completely misleading as it accounts only for emissions generated by actual travel. With road and air transport most of the total emissions come from the driving or flying, but with trains more comes from the construction of the lines. Mr. Cook has omitted these emissions from his claims.

HS2’s own calculations, as reported by the Oakervee review this year, are that construction of the full proposed network would generate between eight and 14 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, while the first 60 years of operations will save 11 to 12 million tonnes. Thus there will be a lot of emissions in the coming months and years with small net savings achieved in the distant future if ever. If we could take this crazy project off the rails and instead take some of this money to invest in achieving a highly developed 5G network available throughout the land, the benefits to citizens, businesses,  services and to the nation as a whole would be incalculable.

5G will enable digitisation to spread further than we have seen before and help the technology sector deliver many of its promises to bring greater connectivity. 5G will bring us closer to a fast-moving, real-time Internet of things helping to connect everything we use in our lives. Too often this is described as connecting your fridge so that you never run out of milk. This is a trivial benefit and may even be worse than that but if we are going to move to a world of driverless cars then the current 4G network is simply too slow. In busy areas users can be crowded out. With 5G the cars will be able to talk directly to each other.  It will leap from six gigahertz (Ghz) on current networks to 300 Ghz. Network radio masts themselves will be able to receive and send more data, further boosting processing power. New technology will propel radio waves more powerfully in specific directions so that there is less blockage in densely populated urban areas. Download speeds will be about 10 gigabits per second, 600 times faster than 4G.

Such greatly improved speeds with near immediate processing will mean that we can exploit cloud computing more effectively. 5G network and the cloud working together will join up more and more interactions between people and their devices, accommodating huge amounts of raw data and providing the vast computing power needed to process it.

Taken together they are core to realising the potential from the key digital themes such as big data, artificial intelligence, machine learning, algorithmic processing and data storage. In addition there will be other new themes emerging that haven’t really been identified yet. For example, smart hospitals where medical devices can monitor patients at home, doctors can diagnose reliably online and surgery can be carried out remotely. So Mr. Dowden, which would you rather have: to save a few minutes on your train journey to Birmingham or to have a genuinely competitive data infrastructure.

Source: “The end goal is to get people into the culture of listening to one another.” Interview with Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s Digital Minister, RSA Journal, Issue 2 2020



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