Sir Nigel Shadbolt’s keynote address – Sharing Data Better: The Rise of Data Institutions

Wed Mar 30, 2022
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In his keynote address at ‘Sharing Data Better: The Rise of Data Institutions), Sir Nigel Shadbolt discusses the ODI’s hopes for the future of data institutions, the role data institutions can play in improving water safety, and the ODI’s first hosted data institution for the Open Referral UK data standard

The following keynote address was delivered by Sir Nigel Shadbolt (Executive Chair and Co-Founder, ODI) at our event Sharing Data Better: The Rise of Data Institutions:

Thanks very much Jack and welcome everyone to Sharing Data Better: The Rise of Data Institutions. It’s great to see so many attendees, even though we are still not all in the same room. Hopefully I will at least see some of you in person before too long. 

We have an outstanding line-up of speakers and panellists today. It makes me very proud to see how this part of our work has grown in recent years. Today we will hear from and be inspired by a diverse range of data institutions: Some are big businesses thinking hard about what stewarding data responsibly could and should look like for them. Some are long-standing institutions, learning and exploring how they can use their positions to steward data more effectively. We can’t forget that open data needs stewarding too, so we will hear from some of our most important open data institutions as well. 

This year, the ODI is celebrating its tenth anniversary, which we will be marking with our Data Decade campaign, celebrating all the work that we have done and anticipating all the work we have to do. It may not be a long journey from our first offices in Shoreditch to here, in King’s Place, but we have certainly come a long way as an organisation. And we are still on that journey.

Often when we set out on such a journey with ideas, aspirations and ambitions, we may wonder if we are taking the correct path. Especially when we are defining new terms and exploring new landscapes. The rise of data institutions – our reason for meeting today – describes one of these journeys.

What we do know is that we’re getting something right! After all, over 1,000 of you have registered to join us today. Since the programme’s first event back in 2020, the response to the work we’ve done on data institutions has been loud and enthusiastic. The discussions around what exactly defines data institutions and the bounds of data stewardship continue as we enhance and refine our understanding. But we can be sure that we have landed upon an important building block of our data futures, as well as beginning to see the social good that can also come from data institutions. We need new institutional architectures, new data institutions to realise the potential of data at scale in our internet and web enabled world.

Definitions

Here at the ODI, we define data institutions as organisations that steward data on behalf of others, often for public, charitable or education aims. There are many different species of data institutions and you will encounter a wide variety today. Some, like UK Biobank, that stewards sensitive data about half a million Brits, have been around for years and are very large organisations. Others, like OpenHumans, enable people to donate data from their FitBits and other such devices and are still relatively small.

We’re fortunate enough to have Bastian Greshake Tzovaras – Director of Research for Open Humans with us, along with James Farrar, who is Director for Worker Info Exchange – a non-profit that empowers workers to access and utilise data that is collected about them in the course of their employment. I am sure neither will mind me referring to them as being at the heart of our more radical data institutions. They build campaigning and politics into the core of their work. 

We’ve already seen a huge global impact from the work we began at the ODI in Open Banking, which means you can do your accounts and add expenses from your smartphone app while you wait for your coffee, or have more control over your credit score. But we want to see the safe and effective stewarding of data across many more sectors and throughout society, to the advantage of the public and the economy at large. 

Transport data, despite being a success story, is still fragmented and not entirely free across the UK. We have seen how valuable the TFL data has been to third party apps and just making our capital run more efficiently and more cost-effectively for the millions who live there. We need to ensure that data can work in the same way for every city and for every rural area, too. 

Different institutions

Many of our guests today – you won’t be surprised to learn – describe their organisation as data institutions. But there are others who you might be surprised to hear from at an event like this. 

Take keynote speaker Nick Pyenson, for example. He is the curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. So, ‘what might that have to do with data institutions?’ you may well ask.

Well, in his talk ‘Data and the Whale: Why natural history museums matter for the crises of the 21st century’, Nick Pyenson will argue that thinking about natural history museums as data institutions can open new visions for these collections as data that is there to be discovered, illuminated and, especially, used to understand the many intersecting global crises that will continue to define the 21st century.

We could and should encourage museums and other cultural heritage organisations around the world to join the data institutions movement.

And even global businesses, who would never describe themselves as data institutions, are starting to recognise their responsibilities as stewards of the data they hold about their customers. Two renowned data experts: Meri Rosich – Chief Data Officer at Standard Chartered CCIB – and Alexander Galt – Digital Ethics Leader at Inter Ikea Group – will be discussing the responsibilities and opportunities afforded by data stewardship with Stuart Coleman the ODI’s Director Of Learning and Business Development. 

Nowhere are the opportunities for better data use and sharing more evident than in health. What can other sectors and domains learn from health data research? Wen Hwa Lee, CEO of the charity Action Against AMD, and Alastair Denniston, consultant ophthalmologist at University Hospitals Birmingham, discuss what they’ve learnt from their work in the field of macular degeneration. These learnings aren’t just technical – such as experiences with Trusted Research Environments – but also about the economic, political and social aspects of responsible data use and sharing.

At the ODI, we are also delighted to be working with organisations such as Microsoft, the McGovern Foundation and the Global Partnership for AI to better understand and support data institutions. We have also seen global progress in developing new approaches to stewarding data elsewhere – via ‘data intermediaries’ in the UK, the European Commission’s Data Governance Act and Personal Data Banks in Japan. 

A way to go (and water)

However… we still have a long way to go. We need more imagination, more innovation, more experimentation, more reflection if we are to build new institutions fit for the data age, if we are to see data used equitably to address the pressing challenges of our time. Otherwise, we risk data being hoarded and monopolised by organisations in the public and private sector, and us as individuals fearing how that data might be used, worrying about the security of the data, concerned that the data will not be used to empower us or to help human flourishing in the age of algorithmic decision making.

The beauty of events such as this is that, as well as focussing our minds, they help those working around us to stop and think about what comes next. 

It makes us all think about what data institutions offer and where they may or not already exist. 

Speaking for the ODI, this has meant that just an hour ago I had a meeting with the water regulator, Ofwat to open up discussions about what we can do to improve access to up-to-the-minute data on water safety, whether that is water you drink or water you swim in. We are already doing some great work with Ofwat, so we wanted to see what we could do, what data could do, to help them in their aims to clean up our waterways, improve alongside the water companies and DEFRA. 

For me, this is something of a passion project, not least because I like to spend my leisure time in, on, or near water. It is something that my students at Oxford are equally passionate about. Seeing their anger about water cleanliness issues, looking at my own frustration around the lack of access to high quality, ubiquitous real-time data about water quality in our rivers and estuaries, the lack of availability and access to detailed data about storm water and sewage release into delicate habitats. We know that data makes a difference in this context, performance, behaviours and outcomes change when data is made available at scale.

We’ve already opened a conversation with people like conservation charity the Rivers Trust – who have made impressive progress in collating data in this area and showing how it can be used to good effect as a campaigning lever. They have mapped the problem and are able to actively show where problems with sewage discharges are taking place. They are actively building APIs and Data Institutions, despite the fact that some of their water sampling still consists of simply dunking an old drinking water bottle in a river – some of the newest technology with some of the oldest. 

We hope to be working with many other ‘citizen scientists’ to not only create somewhere that this data can be seen, but also to find innovative ways to bring pressure upon the water companies to free up this data and clean up their acts. 

There seems to be something of a critical mass approaching in this area, with newspapers such as the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph running campaign pieces on water cleanliness and safe swimming. We can work together to utilise data for a social good, where otherwise it may just languish, because without being used, data is just space filler on a drive or in the cloud. 

Whether the solution is, in fact, a new data institution remains to be seen. But as we look to the future, sharing data within trusted environments will be essential to tackling the existential challenges we face; from climate to health, energy to the built and natural environment.

It is a fundamental part of the ODI’s ethos to make the value of data understandable to everyone. Because from that understanding comes insight, agency and power. The power of ordinary people to hold governments, organisations and businesses to account in what they do, in every aspect of our lives. As well as providing those governments, organisations and businesses the ability to create value through the sharing of data.

Open Referral

With the importance of the use of data in mind, it really does please me to be able to announce that the Open Data Institute is today committing to forming a data institution for the Open Referral UK data standard. 

Open Referral UK provides a means of describing public and community services, so that information can be shared and combined in a way that everyone understands.The standard was recently endorsed by the UK Government Data Standards Authority for the open interchange of data describing services.

This, our first hosted data institution, will give us first hand knowledge and hands on experience of the day to day stewardship of data. Open Referral members will include representatives from the international Open Referral community and we aim to bring the UK and international Open Referral communities even closer together over time. 

The data institution will represent the interests of organisations who invest in this data standard, including local authorities, government departments, the NHS, community groups and private organisations. It will help people who are adopting the standard and give them confidence in its longevity and responsiveness to requests for improvements. 

Our ambition is to open up service data to enable efficient reuse for many purposes, to encourage incremental improvement via feedback from mass exposure, and to stimulate innovation amongst application developers.

Find out more about the Open Referral UK data institution here

Conclusion

I hope that you enjoy today’s event and that it encourages you to explore, collaborate and be inspired by the possibilities for data institutions. Thanks to all the ODI team, who have put on a great day for you. It is brilliant to see so many people signing up for what once would have been seen as a very niche event. Data institutions are definitely on the rise and we hope that the ODI’s part in their future will only continue to grow, too.