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Many of the most successful corporations these days such as Google or Amazon are
essentially data companies. While technology has reshaped the private sector, government
risks getting left behind. The new Government has an opportunity to invest in the data
opportunity that will improve policymaking, make us more prosperous, and strengthen our
democracy.

Policymaking in most areas could be made more effective and efficient by strengthening the
sharing of data within government, while maintaining privacy safeguards. We tend to think of
government as one body, but in practice data is siloed in different departments. The
incentives are not there to share data across departments as a way of improving our
education system or healthcare. And if government can’t get hold of its own data, outside
academics wanting to use it for independent research find it even tougher. We need
leadership from the top to change this.

Data, especially scientific data, is a driver of prosperity and productivity. We are falling
behind other leading nations in the levels of our national investment in scientific research
and development, which leads to technological innovation and prosperity. Government will
need to invest, and also show how it can lever in more private sector funding. It is great to
see a commitment from the Government to increasing R&D expenditure to 2.4% of GDP, but
given likely economic pressures in the coming years, it will take political will to stick with this.

Data can also improve our democracy, but it will require us to have better local and regional
statistics. The Office for National Statistics has made some headway in this area, but there’s
much more to be done. We are a country of marked regional inequalities, and so need to
move beyond national averages to understand regional differences, especially on matters
such as productivity. Communities should easily be able to find the data about their local
area, so that the public sees itself reflected in the data. The upcoming census in 2021 is an
opportunity to test new kinds of data for quicker, more real-time information about the UK.

There are also new data challenges. In policymaking, the data revolution will challenge the
skills of old school civil servants who lack training in number and data skills. When it comes
to our prosperity, it is increasingly a challenge to measure how wealthy our nation really is in
a ‘Facebook’ intangible economy where we receive services but no money changes hands.
And democracy also faces new data challenges: how to counter misinformation, especially in
elections, and how to safeguard public privacy in the light of powerful data driven
technologies such as facial recognition?

The danger is that we have analogue policy in a digital age, and that we miss the
opportunities, and fail to meet the challenges, of our new data driven era.

Hetan Shah is executive director of the Royal Statistical Society and on Twitter
@HetanShah. The RSS’s Data Manifesto is available at www.rss.org.uk/manifesto