Image credit: ODI

The UK National Data Strategy 2020: skills that count

Mon Nov 23, 2020
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We need data literacy for all, data science skills, and experience using data to help solve problems – can this be realised in a national data strategy?

At the Open Data Institute (ODI), we want a world where data works for everyone, and our manifesto outlines how this vision can be achieved. One of our manifesto points is about 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. How could this principle be realised in a national data strategy?

Data literacy for all

Better public understanding of how data is being used, or how it might be used, allows people to make informed choices about the data that affects them. This is important for protecting and strengthening people’s rights as citizens and as consumers. Mastering language literacy supports our personal agency and empowerment through giving us more options for communicating with others and expressing our needs and interests. Language literacy also supports our economic participation through enabling employees to work with key formal tools such as reports and records, and allowing shoppers to compare and assess advertising or special offers. And it supports our civic engagement by enabling us to understand news reports and political campaigning from different sources with confidence and independence. Mastering data literacy can also broaden and improve our agency and empowerment across all these areas.

One way this kind of public understanding of data use and collection might be improved is through strengthening people’s ability to ask the right questions about data from an early age, and supporting their ability to critically engage with it throughout their lives. This is particularly important for those who already face structural disadvantages and so who could use data and data skills to stand up for their rights and needs.

So the kinds of commitments we’d like to see in a national data strategy include investment in data literacy education in the primary school curriculum, and support for data literacy education at all life stages. 

Data science skills for all

The new availability of large-scale datasets, often containing quite rich and complex data, has contributed to the rise of an exciting new scientific discipline: data science.  Data science is an interdisciplinary field that originally drew on mathematics, statistics, and computer science, often combined with specialist disciplines relevant to the kinds of data that is being analysed (for example, medical data, or geographic data). As data science has developed, it’s broadened to include other key skills such as data visualisation and data ethics – we’ve mapped these in the ODI Data Skills Framework

Data science is a field that has the potential to create a lot of positive innovations for society. But it also comes with certain risks. Many of the disciplines at the heart of data science are areas that have not yet overcome their social biases and inequalities, such as the legacy of structural exclusion of women, ethnic minorities, and people with disabilities. This means that there is a risk that innovations from data science will reflect these biases and limitations, and exacerbate existing social injustices.

There are huge benefits to working in data science – career options, access to senior figures in business and government, and opportunities to be at the heart of some of the most exciting transformations in our society. But a lack of social and cultural variety in the data science community risks limiting these benefits and opportunities to just a few demographic groups, or to traditional innovation centres such as large cities. This could exacerbate the ‘digital divide’ and erode public trust in new digital technologies created by the application of data science.

We’d like to see a national data strategy that includes support for ensuring strong social diversity, equality and inclusion across the country in the new field of data science.

Data experience for all

Access to data, and practical support for setting up and delivering data projects, is at the heart of opportunities for using and developing data skills.  In the private sector, larger companies with strong R&D investments, such as tech or engineering multinational corporations, are attractive employers for data analysts and data scientists.  Large government departments in central government can also offer data analysts and data scientists the resources and opportunities that allow them to apply and develop their skills. But data can be valuable in informing decisions outside big companies or central government as well. Local government, civil society, and small and medium businesses should be supported as potential employers of data analysts and data scientists, so that they can use data projects and digital technology for better value for money, operational efficiency and innovation, and social value.

It’s also important that people in a range of organisations and sectors, across roles and across levels of seniority, have experience of data projects. Insights and perspectives from different professional backgrounds are needed to complement data specialists and leaders in their decision-making about data projects. And the more people in different roles that have experience of developing and applying data projects, the more an organisation or profession will have confidence and relevant expertise to draw on when commissioning data projects or interpreting the findings of those projects.

The kinds of commitments we’d like to see in a national data strategy include support for data projects and data skills across the economy, including local government, civil society, and smaller businesses, and across a range of organisational roles.

Get involved

These are just some of our aspirations for a national data strategy, and some of the ideas we are exploring as we develop our response to the consultation about the UK’s National Data Strategy 2020. We also discussed some of these ideas at the ODI Summit this month (if you missed it, you can catch up on some of the sessions on our YouTube channel).

The consultation is open to individuals and organisations across the UK, and it’s important that a wide range of voices and perspectives contribute to it – so do share and participate.

At the start of this project, we pulled together this spreadsheet to map the different elements of the UK National Data Strategy, to help us plan our response to it. We’ve also made a version which shows which sections of the National Data Strategy we think are most relevant to our ODI manifesto ideas about skills, to examine those sections in more depth and evaluate them. Feel free to download the spreadsheet and to adapt it for your own use.

If you think anything is missing from the spreadsheet, or you’d like to discuss the ideas in this post, tweet us @ODIHQ or email us:

For more about how we’re engaging with the UK National Data Strategy consultation, please visit the project page.