Data literacy and the UK government [report]

Tue Apr 12, 2022
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This report aims to map the UK government’s activity on ‘data literacy’, as part of the ODI’s work supporting the development of the UK’s data economy

Why data literacy matters

The ‘data economy’ is growing. It accounted for more than 4% of UK GDP in 2020, and underpins billions of pounds of imports and exports. In the 21st century, every organisation is a data organisation, and should be thinking about how it uses data and its role in wider data ecosystems. Similarly, every role is now a data role. Whatever our job, we need some grasp of data – its opportunities and its limitations – to perform effectively. 

This also applies to our roles as citizens, our roles in households and families, our roles in the rest of our lives, as we try to use, interpret and act upon information. If the UK government wants to investigate and implement more ambitious data-related and artificial intelligence-enabled initiatives, it will also need citizens to have this basic grasp of data in order for them to scrutinise and support such plans, with public trust and understanding being key to their success.

One of the six points in the ODI’s manifesto – to helps us achieve our vision of a world where data works for everyone – is data capability: ‘Everyone must have the opportunity to understand how data can be and is being used. We need data literacy for all, data science skills, and experience using data to help solve problems’.

The ODI understands ‘data literacy’ as ‘the ability to think critically about data in different contexts and examine the impact of different approaches when collecting, using and sharing data and information.’ It goes beyond the technical skills involved in working with data.

The UK government’s role in greater data literacy

The UK government recognises the importance of data skills – ‘for a data-driven economy and data-rich lives’ – by making it one of the pillars of the National Data Strategy (NDS). Within this, it says that ‘foundational data literacy will be required by all’. 

The government’s approach to data literacy for its own workforce (the focus of Mission 1 of the NDS) will have an impact on the wider economy (Mission 3). This is because it leads by example, provides support (eg in making resources available) and collaborates with others. And, the government is a major employer in its own right  – public sector employment accounts for more than a sixth of all employment in the UK – helping to shape the wider employment market, with workers moving in and out of the public sector.

Data literacy initiatives have a role in society, as well as the economy, as they can support individuals, groups and organisations to play an active role in our increasingly data-dominated world.

What government is doing and what more needs to be done

So how exactly is the UK government thinking about data literacy, as it aims to upskill its own workforce to better use data in making policy and delivering services to the public, and strengthen data sharing between departments and between government and other sectors? What initiatives are underway to improve data literacy within government? And what is it doing to foster data literacy more widely, in the general population and workforce? 

Our report, Data literacy and the UK government, attempts some answers to those questions. It finds that:

  • The UK government has no consistent definition for data literacy
    While everyone – from the NDS to other documents like the AI Roadmap, and in conversations with key stakeholders – agrees that data literacy for all is important, government has no consistent definition of ‘data literacy’ (reflecting difficulty in settling on a definition in the wider literature). The lack of definitions, combined with the multiple spheres and subjects ‘data literacy’ spans, can make measuring data literacy more challenging.
  • There’s not a defined distinction between data literacy and other similar skills
    There are also other overlapping types of literacy – as well as numeracy and financial literacy, digital literacy, media literacy, AI literacy, statistical literacy, tech literacy, information literacy, analytical literacy, evaluation literacy and mathematical literacy all feature in government documents and discussion. Data literacy is foundational for many of these. The NDS recognises both the overarching definitional problems and these overlapping or ‘parallel’ skills, but the government has not yet delivered a promised definition of and distinction between these skills for the wider economy.
  • The UK government risks duplicating its work around data literacy
    In 2021, we attempted to map the organisations responsible for ‘data’ in government, because of our documented concern that responsibility was fragmented across multiple bodies, work was being duplicated, and different initiatives were not as well aligned as they might have been. With several different organisations responsible for ‘data literacy’ in government, and the lack of a consistent definition across government, there is a risk of fragmentation, duplication and contradiction, and of not being able to work out to what extent this is the case.
  • More non-specialist data literacy support could be given within government
    The government organisations with particular responsibility for data literacy in the public sector appear to be making good progress and seem well aware of the work that others are doing.  Despite the increasing amount of data literacy support available to people inside government, much of it is provided through data-oriented professions and functions, and some stakeholders we spoke to were conscious that more could be offered at more general, basic and junior levels.
  • More could be done to support data literacy in the wider population
    Despite the government’s recognition of the importance of data literacy for the wider population, there appears to be less activity and less alignment, particularly with what government is doing internally. Most initiatives focus on the individual as employee with an emphasis on the benefits to the workforce, rather on the individual as citizen and the benefits to them within society – the ‘data-driven economy’ rather than the ‘data-rich lives’ mentioned in the NDS.

Get involved

To feedback on the report or to join in on the conversation, please get in touch at policy@theodi.org or on Twitter @ODIHQ

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