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Data Decade: reflecting back and looking forward

Tue Apr 26, 2022
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Ten years in data – the ODI’s Managing Director Louise Burke reflects on the past decade, and what’s to come

Find out more about the Data Decade here

Ten years in data – the ODI’s Managing Director Louise Burke reflects on the past decade, and what’s to come.

Data surrounds us and shapes our world. It is infrastructure – as essential as the roads, railways and electricity we use every day. And it can help us to understand and address some of the biggest challenges we face globally, from infectious diseases to climate change. For example, the World Health Organization’s worldwide data gathering on Covid-19 has enabled governments, epidemiologists, clinicians and pharmaceutical companies to track emergent strains of the virus, and to design strategies, vaccines and medicines more effectively. And the World Bank’s Carbon Pricing Dashboard provides information on existing and emerging carbon pricing initiatives around the world, to support activities to advance well-designed carbon pricing systems around the world.

In the decade since the Open Data Institute (ODI) was founded in 2012, the amount of data created globally has grown exponentially. Statista reports that the volume of data and information created, captured, copied and consumed worldwide will reach 97 zettabytes this year – up from 6.5 zettabytes in 2012. If one can even picture this, a zettabyte is equivalent to a trillion gigabytes! All this data has become the lifeblood of businesses, communities, and society as a whole. With that comes enormous possibility, but also anxiety about how data is used, and by whom.

This year, the ODI is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Today, we are launching a campaign reflecting on the years since we opened our doors; and looking ahead to the next decade of data, and the possibilities they hold. In a series of live events, blogs and podcasts, we’ll look at how data has shaped and influenced all aspects of our lives; from health and the environment to our cultural and ethical paradigms.

Our work

When our co-founders Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Sir Nigel Shadbolt established the ODI in 2012, we could not have imagined what lay ahead: global political upheaval and conflict; a worldwide pandemic; the challenges and opportunities presented by the UK (the ODI’s home nation) leaving the European Union; and the rapid rise of AI and other data-intensive technologies. All of this coming hot on the heels of the global financial crisis of 2008.

We have learned so much as an organisation. We have developed our purview and contributed to international thinking about the position of open data in the overall data spectrum. We have worked with companies and governments to build an understanding of what we call the data ecosystem – the organisations, data, activities and practices that make up the world of data. We have designed and led projects with the private sector, enabling organisations to build their understanding of data ethics and data governance. And we have helped them to share more data, unlocking the value that comes from the flow of data between organisations.

Data infrastructure

Through our 10 years of work, the ODI has become an important part of the global data infrastructure. We are both pro-innovation and pro-privacy and we believe that the two can co-exist. We reconcile different interests to work across business and society to the benefit of all: we are mission-driven and margin generating; a not-for-profit with revenue from the public, private and third sector; working internationally, nationally and locally; and across tech and civic society.

In the past decade, we have worked with others to build a healthy data ecosystem. We have trained more than 50,000 people, incubated and helped accelerate 191 early-stage enterprises across 25 countries and seen many of them grow into market leaders driving positive change with data. These businesses, combined, have created more than 1000 jobs and generated in excess of £100m in revenues.

In our first decade, we have been privileged to work with some of the world’s most credible brands to drive data best practices across many sectors. They include Arup, Wellcome, Microsoft, the McGovern and Gates Foundations, Luminate, Roche, Deutsche Bank, Telefonica, Refinitiv, the BBC, Lloyd’s Register Foundation and many others.

And we have catalysed or contributed to data-driven policies and approaches in more than 30 UK public sector bodies including DFT, DFE, DEFRA, the NHS and several Catapults and contributed to many high-profile calls for evidence. Our work has been cited in dozens of reports by key decision-makers in data ecosystems, including in the UK government’s National Data Strategy and the European Commission’s Data Act.

Through the Open Data Leaders’ Network, we were proud to work with 43 countries, directly advising the governments of Ukraine, Tanzania, Malaysia, Rwanda, Burkina Faso and Mexico. And we have developed and delivered training to  more than 5000 staff in the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Behaviour change at a global scale

Of course, all of our efforts count for nought without a clear goal in sight. We aim for a world where data works for everyone. Ten years since our founding days, we still strive for this. And we believe that it can only be achieved through comprehensive and lasting behaviour change. We want to see companies and governments across the world doing better with data. We want citizens and consumers to get a better deal as a result.

There are many positive indications that this could come about – if not immediately then perhaps in the next decade. During the global pandemic, the use and importance of data have been propelled into the mainstream. In the UK, the phrase ‘next slide, please’ has slipped into our common parlance, where once it would have been saved for meeting rooms and conference halls. Graphs, charts and the ups and downs in the R number – displayed in the data – have all become prompts for everyday conversations. Even the most misguided of social media arguments will conclude with someone pointing to the ‘data’.

From closed, to shared to open data

In the early years of the ODI we argued, that social, economic and environmental change would come about through the wide-scale adoption and understanding of open data. We still believe that open data has an enormous role to play. But the world has changed, and we have changed with it. And in that change, we see the potential for huge global value to be built in the development of fair and equitable data use and sharing across the data spectrum. Whether that is in tackling climate change, eradicating social inequalities or addressing the causes and consequences of war. Data can address all these challenges – and more.

Our future work

In our work developing new models of data institutions, we see potential for international organisations across the public and private sector to unlock value. We are working to develop these models and the practices that support them, for example through the INSIGHT Data Trust Advisory Board, we continue to help patients, the public and others come together to scrutinise requests to access the data held by the hub. And we recently announced our commitment to hosting a data institution for the Open Referral UK data standard. The standard provides a means of describing public and community services so that information can be shared and combined in a way that everyone understands. It addresses the problem of data being presented in different formats, as well as being collected multiple times or in inconsistent ways. The data institution will represent the interests of organisations who invest in the data standard including local authorities, government departments, the NHS, community groups and private sector organisations.

The public’s expectations of responsible and ethical data handling have increased, and we are seeing a growing acceptance of the value of collecting, using and sharing data for the public good, the environment and the economy. People and organisations want to know that they can have confidence and trust in data practices (and in data itself) – they want assurance.

In our activities to increase trust and assurance of data, we have worked with companies and governments to both help them assure data, and be assured by the quality of the data provided by others by bringing standards and structure to data practices that have been – hitherto – loose and often disorganised. Historically, emerging technologies have required standards and ethical and/or legal frameworks to bring benefits to society as a whole, and to engender trust in those that use them, or are subject to their effects. Whether navigating the world using longitudinal charts and chronometers, building railways to standard-gauge or regulating drinking water quality, accepted standards, ethical norms and mutual agreement build trust and allow benefits – economic and social – to scale.

Data plays a huge role in organisations and communities. With that role comes responsibilities that lie with leaders, to effectively steward and govern the data they oversee. This requires data literacy at the most senior levels. We see the opportunity to build skills and capabilities for organisations and their leaders to become more effective agents of change; building data infrastructure to transform sectors at a global scale.

Of course, we continue to work with our network to develop our unique research and in taking forward our national and international policy insight, thought leadership and advice to public and private sector organisations around data. Through this work, we think deeply (and differently) about the opportunities and risks ahead and contribute to the worldwide debate about the role of data in the global community and economy. In 2022, we are also continuing our research into the value of data. Our previous work has shown that increasing trust in data could have a value of up to 2.5% of GDP. And our dive into the value of data sharing in the private sector revealed many potential benefits – and lots of barriers. Barriers that the ODI is intent on helping to overcome.

Meanwhile, in our policy project on Experimentalism and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we are exploring how data policymakers and decision-makers can work in more innovative and agile ways; helping them to adapt to the societal and economic challenges and opportunities around data and digital technologies.

We’re ambitious for the years ahead. We want to work with all our partners, funders, clients and community to effect lasting change. And we want to create a world where data really does work for everyone. We begin our 10th-anniversary campaign today, in the month when, 10 years ago, the ODI was incorporated; and our celebration will culminate in December – when we officially opened for business. Along the way, we will welcome people worldwide to our biggest and best ever annual summit, and at the end of the year, we will publish our strategy for the next five years.

As we start this celebration of the ODI’s 10th year – and of 10 years of enormous developments in data – we hope that you will join us on the next part of the adventure. Onwards!

Louise

Louise Burke is the ODI’s Managing Director