Data Decade

Data Decade: Data and public policy

Fri Dec 16, 2022
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As part of the Data Decade, we are exploring how data surrounds and shapes our world through 10 stories from different data perspectives. The ninth, Data and public policy, explores the relationship between data and policy, and how policymaking may need to adapt to keep up with a rapidly evolving digital landscape.

Find out more about the Data Decade

By Alek Tarkowski, co-founder and Director of Strategy at Open Future, and Matt Davies, Senior Policy Adviser at the ODI

As part of the Data Decade, at the Open Data Institute (ODI), we are exploring how data surrounds and shapes our world through 10 stories from different data perspectives. The ninth, Data and public policy, explores the world of data and digital policy, and how policymaking may need to adapt to keep up with a rapidly evolving digital landscape.

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This is Data Decade, a podcast by the ODI. 

Emma Thwaites: Hello and welcome back to Data Decade from the ODI. 

I’m Emma Thwaites and in this series we look at the last 10 years of data, the next decade ahead, and the transformational possibilities for data in the future. So far, we’ve looked at a range of topics from data in art and culture to how data can save lives, and we’ve heard from our co-founders, Sir Nigel Shadbolt and Sir Tim Berners-Lee on the developments that have shaped tech and AI in the past 10 years.

But in this episode, we’re looking at data and public policy. Public policy refers to the tools that governments and other public servants use to deliver on social aims. From lowering waiting times on the NHS to reducing carbon emissions. Policymakers often fall back on a well-established playbook of methods to achieve their goals, but data has changed the game.

Data collection is now ubiquitous and technologies that use data to make sophisticated decisions, often called artificial intelligence or AI, are developing rapidly. The pace of change is creating new social and economic challenges that conventional approaches to policy can struggle to govern effectively, from the proliferation of online misinformation and deep fakes to the rollout of intrusive algorithmic management practices at work.

So does policymaking itself need to change in order to govern data effectively. Let’s find out. 

Welcome to Data Decade.

Emma Thwaites: Now we have some great guests as ever to talk through the relationship between data and policy. Joining me are Alek Tarkowski, the co-founder and Director of Strategy at Open Future. Hello, Alek. 

Alek Tarkowski: Hello. Nice to be here. 

Emma Thwaites: And we also have Matt Davies, the Senior Policy Advisor at the ODI. Hi Matt. 

Matt Davies: Hey Emma. Great to be here. 

Emma Thwaites: Welcome to both of you. Matt, I’m gonna come to you first. What is actually different about data and digital policy as opposed to other areas of policy? Why should we treat them differently?

Matt Davies:
It’s a really good question, and there’s a few ways in which I think data and digital policy might be a bit different. And you’ve already alluded to one of them, which is the speed in which these developments are happening. So, you know, we are seeing the development of data collection, new types of data collection gathered in new places, but also the development of new ways of analysing that data, far more quickly than policymakers can actually act in response.

For example, we’re only now seeing the European Commission’s work on the AI Act come to fruition, and that’s the first comprehensive regulatory framework for AI anywhere in the world, I think. So, you know, that’s a monental achievement. I don’t want to downplay that. But it will take a few years for that to take effect, for us to see what works, and to be implemented across 27 different member states. And other jurisdictions are falling behind even further.

So interestingly, what we’re actually seeing as a result of this changed pace is cities and local governments are taking a bit of a lead in this. For example, New York City government has been doing really interesting work regulating biometrics. Barcelona, for example, has an AI strategy, the city of Barcelona.

We’re seeing this phenomenon that The GovLab are calling AI localism, which I think is really interesting. But relatedly as well, these developments are throwing up new social, economic, and ethical questions. And at the very least, they have new dimensions, right? So for example, worker exploitation in the gig economy. They might closely resemble practices we’ve seen before, but there are new elements or new ethical questions that are being thrown up.

So we’re figuring out what we want to see at the same time as actually trying to make it happen. A bit like driving a car while it’s still being built. So this makes it really important for policymakers to get social consent and licence for their approaches, and we’re seeing more public engagement and more participatory approaches used, again, primarily at a local level, but also some national governments too.

With Taiwan being a really strong example of this. Using digital technologies themselves to crowdsource ideas and consult with publics on how to tackle some of these thorny questions.

Emma Thwaites: It’s a real challenge, isn’t it? Because it’s a very different set of skills that we’re requiring of policymakers, of typical civil servants, if you like. Do you think they’re ever actually going to be able to meet that challenge? That they’re ever gonna be able to keep up with the pace of change?

Matt Davies: I think it’s a real challenge, particularly when you think of the political economy of data and digital. And, you know, the assets, the intellectual property are concentrated, but also the skills to actually engage in this new economy. And overwhelmingly, as we note, it’s in the private sector, it’s in small clusters of tech talent, particularly Silicon Valley, but also in other hubs in Europe and China. And this concentration makes it really challenging because actually states don’t have the capacities or the skills to engage themselves.

Are we entering a new reality where states are increasingly going to have to work with large private corporations because they can’t build the infrastructures themselves and they don’t have the capacity? You know, they’re always going to need to rely on those infrastructures, or they’ll have to build the alternative.

Emma Thwaites: That’s a really interesting area. And indeed, you know, some people liken some of those big tech companies as, you know, sort of being more state-like than they are corporation-like in nature. Alek, I’m sure you’ll have lots to say about the ideas and the thoughts that Matt’s put out there on the table, but before we go into that, I wondered if you could just tell us a little bit about Open Future itself.

Alek Tarkowski: We’re a European thinktank for the open movement. So we see ourself as a civic organisation that enters debates that are often very technical, often also driven by industry or commercial interests. And introducing into these debates a civic perspective. And in particular, I mentioned the open movement, a perspective that connects with such ideas as openness or commons-based approaches.

And indeed, one of the areas that we think is a key area of social debate today is data. So we’re paying attention to this policy debate. ‘Why?’ I think one may ask. Well, because basically a lot of this data is our own data. I think it’s sort of fashionable maybe, or we got used to thinking of data as mainly an economic asset.

And this drives us to thinking that this data is owned by companies, it’s produced by companies, it’s commercial. But actually that’s not true. A lot of the data refers back to us citizens, or it’s even created by us citizens, or we’re somehow involved in it. So for instance, it’s very often there’s a debate, for instance, in the car industry that who owns the data?

Is it the producer of the car? Well, in the end, there’s a han driving that car and we want to capture that moment and represent it in these debates.

Emma Thwaites: And what methods do you think are the best for involving the citizen or the individual to whom the data refers?

Alek Tarkowski: We’re very inspired by the concept of the commons, which is a concept that goes way back and refers to such ideas as shared pastures in English villages years ago, before the enclosure happened. But this concept has been, sort of, reimagined around 50 years ago by scholars like Elinor Ostrom, a famous economist who got the Nobel Prize in economy for developing these ideas.

And she, sort of, has shown how these ideas can be applied in modern times, and in particular how we can take ideas about managing resources like pastures or water sources and apply them in the digital realm. This is an extremely powerful idea that shows that, again, goods – in this case, data – are not always private, are not always individual, but often have a collective dimension and can be managed, collectively and for the public and not just private interest.

Emma Thwaites: That’s actually a really good segue to the question I was going to ask you next, which is around, you know, whether we need new structures or institutions to govern data and give us kind of codes of practice, I guess for, you know, data and digital technologies. Maybe the commons is one of those that we should consider.

Alek Tarkowski: So I think, I really believe that institutions are the solution. They are a sort of social form that are consciously designed to fit certain challenges and I think, sort of, institutional innovation is something that we need badly. 

I’m very inspired by recent years where really, I think there has been a lot of innovation in this space. ODI, for example, has been doing wonderful work on the idea of data trusts. There are also ideas like data cooperatives. We’ve been championing an idea we call public data commons. These are different models where the crucial part is this social contract or some kind of a social arrangement. In other words, an institution. 

And if I may, I want to go back for a second to what Matt was talking about, because I think the fundamental assumption there is that policy counts. I like to say that policymaking is world building. You know, world building is, I think a hot idea today, but we often believe that these new worlds, new realities are created A) by business and B) through code.

There is this famous quote from Professor Lawrence Lessig who said, years ago, that code is law, and we see it repeatedly, right? That it’s code that’s shaping the world today. And that’s all true. And also, code is very powerful and very fast. But even though policy, as Matt rightly noted, has challenges, it’s sometimes very bureaucratic and it’s slow.

I think it’s advantage is that it’s sort of a public force. It’s a force that when properly operating is wielded by societies, is democratic. And I think that’s why at Open Future we really believe in public policies. We want to be shaping it. We want to also convince people that it’s important to pay attention to policies.

Emma Thwaites: It’s really interesting that you should mention some of the work that the ODI has done in this space to advance this thinking, I guess, and also, you know, look at different structures, different mechanisms that we could have for governing data and digital better. 

I just want to come back to Matt now, just to talk a little bit about the work that the organisation has been doing. You know, obviously there’s the work that we’ve done on data institutions, but also the work on experimentalism in the policy space. And I wonder if you could just say a little bit about some of that. Cause it’s quite, it is quite cutting edge. It’s quite new thinking.

Matt Davies: Sure. Our experimentalism project was really motivated by a lot of these questions, right. You know, traditionally policymaking is quite bureaucratic. It can’t keep up with the fast pace at which data and data-centric technologies are moving. So we wanted to explore, you know, what are the tools, capacities, skills that policymakers, that states, that regulators actually need to have to govern effectively in this data era?

And over 18 months, you know, we partnered with organisations from across the world, and heard from policymakers, you know, as diverse as Audrey Tang from Taiwan, right through to the government of Estonia here in Europe. And we learned a lot of lessons from that. But I think something to pick up on, which really relates to Alek’s point, is that we need to create more avenues and mechanisms for affected individuals, communities, and groups to feed into policymaking.

And really, policy should be a virtuous cycle, right? It should be about, not just set from the top down, but actually creating those structures by which then people can feed in and contribute to the further development of policy and the further governance of the world in which we live in. And you know, as Alek also alluded to with the concept of data stewardship, we are seeing a lot of what we at the ODI call participatory or bottom-up data institutions that are fulfilling a lot of those roles.

So for example, in the workers’ rights space, there’s an organisation called Worker Info Exchange here in the UK. In the US, there are some other examples like WeClock and Driver’s Seat that allow workers to take more of an active role in the stewardship of data that concerns them, to pool it together and to bargain for better rights and better terms and conditions at work.

And we see that as really important. But there’s a bit of a gap when it comes to the existing institutions because actually there are already civil society organisations in place that we need to empower and build capacity in. And there are state organisations, civil society organisations. In the worker rights space, that might be trade unions. And the Trades Union Congress here in the UK is doing really interesting work looking at what the role of trade unions could be in stewarding that data and perhaps working with some of those more grassroots initiatives. 

So I think the role of policymakers here can be to help to create more of a coherent institutional context and ensure that people have that voice and those avenues to feed in.

But we also need to think about what is the role of the state in actually driving change from the top down. It comes back to, you know, the role of public policy as a force for change, as Alek pointed out. The state is probably the best vehicle we have to think about these questions as a collective, as countries, as nations acting together or as a global community. 

And, you know, what is the scope that we have to use the traditional tools of the state – whether that’s procurement, public ownership, regulation and various other mechanisms – to actually shape our tech and data economy and ensure we achieve better outcomes? I think that’s an open question still.

Alek Tarkowski: Can I come in for a second? 

Emma Thwaites: Of course you can. 

Alek Tarkowski: One more important role of this state, which I like to think about, is the role in scaling good initiatives. Because what we observe, and that’s the general challenge with innovation, right? That often innovation is very localised. The great example is data cooperatives. It’s a very powerful idea which connects, again, the very traditional form of social organising, a cooperative, which has a wonderful history in almost every European country, with the idea that these cooperatives today can manage data.

But if you look at this landscape, there are not many of these cooperatives, and certainly none of them, for instance, have European, international scale. And my belief, and this is what we think at Open Future, is that most probably they will not be able to scale on their own.

It’s a matter of capacities and resources. And we need here states, public institutions that sort of can be fellow travellers and, sort of, bigger sisters or brothers who can lend a helping hand and help them grow. And I think we come back to conversations we had a decade ago around open data. Again, can this be a participatory model, right?

It’s not just about the state doing its own thing, but also the state and the spirit of openness. Being able to reach out to these different social actors, connect with them, understand their needs, and be supportive. By the way, I think states are very good today at supporting innovative economic actors in the world of startups.

Startups are quite amazing in terms of a sort of innovative culture that can really drive social change. It would be great to see similar models of corporation developed with civic projects.

Emma Thwaites: And I was going to ask you a follow up question to that actually, Alek, because as you were speaking, dare I say, it all sounds incredibly utopian. 

And in a world where most states are battling with economic pressures, not to mention environmental challenges and social ills, trying to get governments, trying to get states to invest – because it’s a misnomer, isn’t it? That, you know, open is free – open costs. You know, to do these things well, to introduce these new ways of working requires an investment. I just wonder what is the best mechanism to persuade governments that they should pursue these ways of working?

Alek Tarkowski: Yeah, the issue of costs of these data-driven positive models, I think, is crucial, and it’s a big challenge. If you think about it, we managed to build some institutional structures that protect our data – of course, still not ideally, this is still a big social debate – but we have some guardrails.

Most importantly, the GDPR, the General Data Protection Regulation, working across Europe. But if you think about it, the protection is, in the end, a relatively easy – maybe not easy, but sort of cost effective – thing to do. You’re just enforcing guardrails. I think these positive visions, as you, Emma, said, are a lot more challenging to build.

I know this sounds utopian. I think we need these utopian visions, but indeed it’s a completely different question how they will be implemented. And again, here, probably the important idea is that close to utopia you have protopia. So this vision, what are the small steps we can take together? I think the way to do it, there is of course no miracle approach and our budgets of our states will not suddenly magically grow, but really find these areas where this work with data for the public interest can be crucial.

And I think there are two areas. Health, as demonstrated in the pandemic, and climate change. 

Emma Thwaites: Matt?

Matt Davies: Yeah, I think it’s a really good question, and something we’re often thinking about in the public policy team at the ODI is how do we make the case for data policy and investments in data infrastructure when we know ultimately that’s gonna be weighed up on a balance sheet somewhere against giving a pay rise to nurses or subsidising people’s energy bills.

And there’s no easy answer to that, but I think part of the answer is that this shift is happening. As we’ve already discussed at length, these changes are happening rapidly. We’re seeing data collected in more settings and more formats and used in new ways than we could have ever envisaged 10, 20 years ago, and this shift is only going to continue.

You know, Silicon Valley isn’t going to stop developing new AI tools. OpenAI isn’t going to stop releasing new versions of the GPT chat bot – I think we’re up to GPT 4 now. But, you know that  number’s gonna keep ticking up. And I think the question is, do we want to act now and try and shape perhaps more of an egalitarian, certainly more of an open and more of a trustworthy data and tech ecosystem? Or do we want to risk waiting until the runaway train has gone a bit too far down the tracks and having to spend much more to avert it in a better direction? 

I think in a way it’s analogous to the arguments you often hear people make about climate change, right? Sure, it seems like an awful lot of money to spend right now to reach net zero or to mitigate carbon emissions, but actually it’s going to cost a hell of a lot more when half of California’s on fire and half of the United Kingdom’s underwater.

I think we need to have a similar perspective when it comes to these questions.

Emma Thwaites: I mean, it’s interesting, isn’t it, because, Alek, you mentioned two examples of health and climate where there is huge potential. And Matt’s just alluded to the climate one there. I wonder whether part of the winning the argument, if you like, is in showing what the opportunities are? Actually demonstrating what the value of an investment in data policy, data infrastructure, participatory data practices – I wonder if we should be trying to show through active use cases what the benefits can be?

Alek Tarkowski: And this is, I think, the historic of the response to the Covid-19 pandemic where really – and it was something that could even be appreciated almost by everyone, I think, in everyday life. We became really a data-driven society. We became used to graphs. We became used to data-driven apps in a way that was really not common before. We also had conversations about data sharing, which were happening too late, but hopefully they can demonstrate the need going forward to do exactly that.

Am I an optimist? Not fully. I already can see how we’re sort of not, I think, learning that lesson. But I want to say one more thing. I think yes, you are right that budgets are challenged at the time of crisis, but nevertheless, there is still large public spending and governments need to be savvy about how they do it.

Because, you know, there is a classical model of sort of public-private partnership where, we are, in the public sector, institutions are depending on commercial solutions. This is extremely visible in education, which I think is another field which is really a huge area where we’ll be facing data-driven, sort of, models that need to be public, in public hands, need to be democratically controlled.

But today, if you look at the landscape of how, sort of, these systems are deployed, very often school systems don’t have their own capacities, don’t have their own intra-digital infrastructures, but depend on those offered by one of the, basically, big tech giants. But the question is, can’t we discuss more of the conditions under which they happen?

These giants really want to deploy these systems in public sectors, so I think there’s leverage that can be used here. So we come back to this question whether policymakers understand they are indeed building worlds and they should do it responsibly.

Emma Thwaites: You alluded there to these, you know, quite traditional and classical models of public and private partnerships, of different agencies acting together for the public good, essentially – for other reasons as well. But that does require a particular state of readiness amongst policymakers, public servants, civil servants. 

I’m going to come to you, Matt, to ask about your observations around how ready and willing those individuals and organisations are currently.

Matt Davies: I definitely think it’s a complicated picture, and in the UK historically we’ve actually been pretty leading when it comes to digitising government. But we’ve also seen, particularly in recent years – and we actually put out an ODI report on this last year – you know, a proliferation of different initiatives, different organisations within the public sector, all with various roles and obligations around data. 

So I think firstly, there’s a bit of institutional confusion maybe, and we’ll need to see in the coming years whether this new, central – well, relatively new – central data and digital office can help to consolidate some of that expertise.

I think more broadly there’s an issue where, even though government might have very good data professionals, it’s quite siloed. And actually we need to see better data literacy across the board in government. 

A third related point is, I think we need to get away from the idea that – and it relates to the point earlier about how we make the case for spending on data and digital. Because historically, one of the ways that’s been done is to talk about it as a means for economising. We’ll say, ‘Actually, data will help you find efficiencies. It’ll help you do things in a more efficient, more effective way.’ Now, that might be true in the long run, but as we know, you need a great deal of upfront investment and institutional cultural work to actually make that happen.

So we need to get away from that kind of idea that it’s a shortcut. 

Emma Thwaites: Like a quick fix.

Matt Davies: Exactly. I think my final point on that would be, there are some things that, at present, it’s really difficult to see the state ever being able to do, and that’s causing kind of bigger strategic problems. If we take the issue of the use of NHS data, and there’s been a lot of controversy recently over the involvement of the American tech firm, Palantir, in the NHS. 

Now, leaving aside questions of Palantir’s virtue or lack of virtue, this is going to be a perennial problem. Because actually as things stand, the state doesn’t have the capacity to internalise and analyse data with a level of sophistication that a leading tech firm like Palantir can. So this dilemma is going to continue to raise its head until we make a decision. 

You know, are we going to rely on private providers and private infrastructure for those services? Are we going to build alternative capacities within the state to do that? If so, is that even possible? Are we going to lure the very best tech talent in the world to Whitehall or to Washington, or to wherever?

Can we actually do that? And what does that look like? What’s the different model of state-led data infrastructure look like? And I think that’s an open question, and it’s going to become an increasingly pressing one.

Emma Thwaites: Alek, your thoughts.

Alek Tarkowski:
The NHS and Palantir example reminds me of an issue that, from our perspective at Open Future, is one of the key policy debates now in, uh, Europe has a debate. The Data Act, it’s admittedly an issue that’s not sort of popular and in the press, but it’s the issue of an idea which is called the technocratically business to government data sharing.

It’s basically this idea that sometimes public institutions could ask private actors to share data. It’s an idea that’s been developed, I think, at least for a decade, which connects with a lot of ideas about broadly understood data trusts. These could be fed private data and then manage them responsibly in the public interest. 

We see that this idea gets a lot of pushback from the industry, which obviously sees it as sort of unnecessary public intervention. Also, some people are worried that states could misuse this power. But I think what’s being missed that it’s very important, and an idea that sort of shifts this logic, you know, this logic that it’s public’s data that can be used by companies to their benefit. Or they can come, and as you said in this NHS example, sort of offer solutions, infrastructures. I think we need this reverse logic.

But I also want to briefly mention this issue of capacities, which was your question, Emma, because I think this is very important. And again, the example of open data, of which I think as sort of the previous big wave of data governance debates is telling, around 10 years ago, there was a whole wave of amazing institutions set up within governments that basically were sort of responsible for doing, not only innovation, but these initiating learning processes within these administrations.

I think they work depending on the country in different ways. Some were not very successful, but the idea was correct. I think we need more of these, sort of, internal change makers. I also know from personal experience, I was involved as an expert in the Polish government in the past. They face an uphill battle. It’s very hard to transform bureaucracies.

Emma Thwaites: Absolutely. Almost wicked problem actually. But, that’s great. I can’t believe we’ve nearly been talking for half an hour, and there’s always a final question that I have to ask guests. I like us to look forward. You’ve done a little bit of that already, you know, looking ahead to what a positive future might be.

So I’d like to ask you both if you could gaze into my crystal ball and see what the future holds for data in the public policy space. And Matt, I’m gonna come to you first for this one.

Matt Davies: I think it’s gonna be a really exciting time, if I’m honest. Although, that probably sounds a bit nerdy. I think we’re gonna see the effectiveness – or otherwise – of the current wave of European legislation.

So the Data Act that Alek mentioned, the Data Governance Act, the AI Act, rules and AI liability and other things. We’re gonna find out if they work, if we’re gonna have to see another wave – the answer’ll probably be somewhere in between. 

And I think we’re also going to see competing approaches emerge in the US, in China, maybe even here in the UK. And they’ll all be motivated by different values and visions for how technology needs to be deployed. So we can see a bit of a laboratory maybe emerging in the public policy space. We’ll get a chance to see what works, what doesn’t. And I think that’s really exciting. 

But ultimately, I think the really important factor is gonna be this question of state capacity and whether governments around the world figure out how they can do industrial strategy and economic policy in an era of big data and AI. Cause we’re seeing these more activist approaches to the economy come back into vogue, particularly with the Biden administration in the US, but also with industrial policy here in the UK.

I think we’re gonna have to ask really challenging questions about whether some of those more traditional approaches are actually suitable, and if so, how do you implement them? You know, how do you think about public ownership, for example, of strategic sectors when you have a sector like the AI sector, which is so concentrated in parts and so fragmented in others? 

And that’s some really fascinating questions that we’re gonna find out more about in the next few years.

Emma Thwaites: And citizens, of course, have an expectation, an increasing expectation of involvement in decisions.

Matt Davies:
Absolutely. And I think it’s also really exciting to think about how can data and digital tech actually help us to facilitate that involvement?

You know, some of the participatory approaches that we’ve already talked about, you know, wide scale consultation at pace like we’ve seen in, again, in Taiwan with vTaiwan. I think whether and how states can actually implement those sorts of rapid cycle consultations, citizens assemblies, will be a really key determining factor into whether this next wave of regulation actually enjoys social consent.

Emma Thwaites: Excellent, Matt. Thank you. Alek, it’s your turn to have a gaze into the crystal ball.

Alek Tarkowski: So first of all, we don’t need to look into a crystal ball to know that in the European Union, we’ll soon have a range of pretty powerful new regulations. The names just, and the acronyms, you can just like rap about them, basically.

There’s the DGA, the Data Governance Act, the Data Act, the European Health Data Space Act. It’s a mouthful. But they offer some powerful structures that now need to be filled with life. And that’s the question about the future, because you only get so far with regulation. Right? And now I think the big question is, will they come to life?

And I can see two things happening, and I’m hopeful that they will happen. One is funding, public funding. The European Union actually has reserved quite a lot of money for what it calls the dual transformation, which is the digital and green transformation. And these are really big funds that either will go into some run-of-the-mill projects that will not really, in a meaningful way, transform our digital societies. Or they can fund really important work for some data policy. So I’m hoping it’ll be the latter. 

But the other thing that’s crucial – and again, this is sort of beyond the state, though the states can be supportive – is civic participation. This is, again, a key idea that anyone who’s been following the open data conversation, as you know – I return to it, because I really think it set some foundations in terms of proper principles.

We know that there needs to be civic involvement – or in other terms, participatory governance. There are some interesting touchpoints or signals that show what can be possible. In the UK, I was really inspired to hear that citizen panels happened on data. I think it’s a very, sort of, interesting and advanced participatory model that gives citizens the ability to collectively define policy goals on complex issues.

Matt already talked about Taiwan, where they are implementing tools such as the Polis system, which again allows, at really unprecedented scale, collective decision making. In Europe, there was a process called Conference on the Future of Europe, which basically managed to do some forms of participatory consultations at European scale.

It was not ideal, but it was very new. It was innovative. It used a civic open source platform called Decidim, previously used […] cities, which again shows me that we’re making steps towards, really, models, where hopefully data-driven debates will not be just about industry talking with government, but really have meaningful ways in which citizens can participate, even though these issues will always be, to be honest, quite complicated.

Emma Thwaites: Matt was indicating to me that he wants to have another look in the crystal ball.

Matt Davies: Well, Alek’s response certainly stirred some more images in the crystal ball. No, I just want to say, I completely agree. And when it comes to bringing legislation to life and bringing regulation to life, I think not only having those participatory approaches in a kind of procedural sense, but actually embedding them in people’s lives will be key.

And that’s everything we’ve already talked about, right? Making sure it goes to the heart of the state. You know, in the UK there’ll be the civil service, but also civil society organisations, consumer groups, community organisations, trade unions. These technologies are shaping how people live and work and play, and the processes by which people feed in should also be integrated into their lives.

Emma Thwaites:
I can’t think of a better way to end. So I’m gonna say sincere thanks to Alek Tarkowski from Open Future, and also to Matt Davies from the ODI. 

Alek Tarkowski: Thank you. 

Matt Davies: Thanks, Emma. 

Emma Thwaites: Thanks very much, guys.

Emma Thwaites: Thanks again for listening to this episode of Data Decade, some really fascinating insights as ever, and thank you to Alek Tarkowski and Matt Davies for joining us. 

If you want to find out more about anything you’ve heard in this episode or the series, just head over to where we continue the conversation around the last 10 years of data and what the next decade has in store for us.

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I’m Emma Thwaites, and this has been Data Decade from the ODI.

Data collection is now ubiquitous, and technologies that use data to make sophisticated decisions – often called ‘artificial intelligence’ or ‘AI’ – are developing rapidly. The rapid pace of change is creating new social and economic challenges that conventional approaches to policy can struggle to govern effectively: from the proliferation of online misinformation and deepfakes, to the roll-out of intrusive algorithmic management practices at work.

Does policymaking itself need to change in order to govern data effectively?

Data, digital and public policy

Policy counts. I like to say that policymaking is world building.

– Alek Tarkowski, co-founder and Director of Strategy, Open Future

Public policy refers to the tools that governments and other public servants use to deliver on social aims – from lowering waiting times on the NHS to reducing carbon emissions. Policymakers often fall back on a well-established playbook of methods to achieve their goals, but data has changed the game.

Developments in data and digital are happening at an unprecedented rate, and new ways of collecting and using data are emerging far more quickly than policymakers can respond. For example, the European Commission’s AI Act is likely to be passed next year, and will take several years to be implemented and come into force across the European Union’s member states. As the first comprehensive regulatory framework for AI anywhere in the world, it represents a huge achievement, but deployments of AI are already widespread across the economy and there remains a sense that regulation is lagging behind.

We’re figuring out what we want to see at the same time as actually trying to make it happen – it’s a bit like driving a car while it’s still being built.

– Matt Davies, Senior Policy Adviser, ODI

This change of pace is throwing up new social, economic and ethical questions for policymakers to contend with, and policymaking itself is having to transform as a response. For example, cities and local governments, which are sometimes able to act more quickly than national governments, are taking a lead – like New York City, which has introduced regulation around biometrics, or the city of Barcelona, which has its own AI strategy.

The ODI’s Experimentalism and the Fourth Industrial Revolution project has been exploring how these developments have affected policymaking, and the skills, tools and capacities that policymakers now need to govern effectively in this new era of data.

Participation in policymaking

Policy can be a vehicle for democracy – empowering individuals and communities to make the changes they want to see in the world. It’s vital that these civic perspectives are represented in debates around data policy. Instead of simply setting policies from the ‘top-down’, policymakers working on data and digital technologies should create structures that allow people to feed in and contribute to the further development of policy and the ongoing governance of the increasingly data-centric world that we live in.

We need to create more avenues and mechanisms for affected individuals, communities, and groups to feed into policymaking.

– Matt Davies, Senior Policy Adviser, ODI

So how do we involve individuals in this process? We might take inspiration from ‘the commons’ – a concept which refers to resources that can be shared by all members of society – rather than viewing data solely as an economic asset owned by individuals or companies.

This is an extremely powerful idea that shows that goods – in this case, data – are not always private, are not always individual, but often have a collective dimension and can be managed collectively for the public, and not just private, interest.

– Alek Tarkowski, co-founder and Director of Strategy, Open Future

We can also look to governments that are already wielding participatory approaches to enable policymakers to get social consent. For example, Taiwan’s vTaiwan project used digital technologies to crowdsource ideas and consult with the public, an approach that the ODI discussed with Digital Minister of Taiwan Audrey Tang at ODI Summit 2022.

One part of the solution might also be what the ODI refers to as ‘data institutions’, or organisations that steward data on behalf of others, often towards public, educational or charitable aims. Participatory or ‘bottom-up’ data institutions empower individuals to play a more active part in stewarding data – be it through individual, collective or delegated decision-making. For example, in the workers’ rights space, there’s Driver’s Seat Cooperative, Worker Info Exchange and WeClock – all of which enable workers to use data about them to improve working conditions. And this role does not only have to be played exclusively by new data institutions: we can also look to existing representative organisations such as trade unions, residents associations and consumer groups. The challenge for policymakers is to ensure that these organisations have the resources, skills and capacities to take on new responsibilities for the data age.

Driving change

In a world where states face constraints on their economic, environmental and social pressures, a key challenge will continue to be demonstrating the value of investments in open, trustworthy and participatory data infrastructure.

Vast infrastructures of data collection – and AI applications using that data – are being built, predominantly by private companies with little accountability. If governments don’t invest in shaping this infrastructure early enough, it may require even more of an investment further down the line to reshape it.

I think the question is, do we act now and try to shape more of an egalitarian, open and trustworthy data and tech ecosystem? Or do we risk waiting until the runaway train has gone a bit too far down the tracks, and having to spend much more to divert it in a better direction?

– Matt Davies, Senior Policy Adviser, ODI

Part of the answer will lie in showing what the opportunities are, through active use cases which demonstrate the value of data. For example, we can look to the Covid-19 pandemic, where the collection and sharing of data helped to save lives, or to the climate crisis, where ‘data at scale’ plays a key role in both understanding the problem and implementing solutions.

Beyond just recognising the need for investment, states also need to consider what this investment will look like. Will they invest in developing public data infrastructure, or do they rely on the capacities of private organisations? Currently, data and digital skills are concentrated overwhelmingly in the private sector, which can lead to tricky situations where states depend on private tech firms to provide fundamental parts of their data infrastructure. Take for example the controversy around American tech firm Palantir’s involvement with NHS data: dilemmas such as this are unlikely to go away until states begin to take a more strategic and long-term approach to the question of who is responsible for data and digital infrastructure.

Looking ahead

Looking ahead, the next decade of data and digital policy will be a really exciting and promising time.

We’re going to see the current wave of European regulations come into force – including the Data Act, the Data Governance, the AI act, the European Health Data Space act, just to name a few. These all provide some pretty powerful structures – but the big question will be whether they ‘come to life’ and make a positive difference to the lives of citizens in Europe and beyond.

In the European Union, we’ll soon have a range of pretty powerful new regulations. They offer some powerful structures that now need to be filled with life. And that’s the big question for the future, will they come to life?

– Alek Takowski, co-founder and Director of Strategy, Open Futures

We’re also likely to see competing approaches emerge across the globe, all motivated by different values and visions for how technology needs to be deployed. We’ll get to see what works and what doesn’t – and also how governments contend with some of the challenging issues that are emerging. These include fundamental questions on state capacity, and how governments around the world should approach industrial strategy and economic policy in an era of big data and AI.

We also hope to see the uptake of approaches to policymaking that enable and encourage civic participation – and how these processes of participation can be embedded in people’s lives.

We’re making steps towards models where hopefully data-driven debates will not be just about industry talking with government, but really have meaningful ways in which citizens can participate.

– Alek Takowski, co-founder and Director of Strategy, Open Futures