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National data strategy outlined by UK government

A wide-ranging new strategy outlined in the UK aims to improve data use in government and better enable businesses to use data to innovate.

The national data strategy was published by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on Wednesday. Information and technology law experts at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, described the strategy as "encouragingly positive for business" with global ambitions.

The strategy, which is open to consultation until 2 December this year, proposes a range of actions that various government departments or the Office for National Statistics (ONS) will be responsible for completing.

The actions each fall under one of four central 'pillars' to the strategy, which concern the quality and availability of data, the skills needed to make the most of the data, and responsible use of data. The pillars in turn serve to accomplish five overarching 'missions' for the strategy. The five missions are: unlocking the value of data across the economy; securing a pro-growth and trusted data regime; transforming government’s use of data to drive efficiency and improve public services; ensuring the security and resilience of the infrastructure on which data relies; and, championing the international flow of data.

Cameron Sarah

Sarah Cameron

Legal Director

There is a critical balance to be struck between not stifling innovation and the commercial incentives to collecting data and ensuring there is sufficient regulation to protect consumers and provide for fair competition

One of the recurring themes from the strategy is the desire of the government to help businesses derive value from data to deliver economic growth, without imposing further regulatory burdens, said Sarah Cameron of Pinsent Masons.

"This is expressed through a number of the government's actions that feed into its pro-growth and trusted data regime mission, as well as its comments that it wants the UK's data protection framework to 'remain fit for purpose amid rapid technological change'," said Cameron. "The government has also reiterated its desire for obtaining an 'adequacy decision' from the European Commission to ensure the free flow of personal data can continue uninterrupted after the Brexit transition period ends."

Further international aspects of the strategy include plans the UK government has to obtain "specific commitments to prevent the use of unjustified data localisation measures" from its global trade partners.

The eagerness of the government to support data-driven innovation through the use of new technologies is also apparent from its new strategy, Cameron said. Among other things, the government said it will "work with regulators to prioritise timely, simple and practical guidance, especially for emerging technologies, and create more opportunities to experiment safely". Cameron said businesses, particularly SMEs, would further welcome any steps towards a rationalising of the large volume of guidance published concerning data ethics, AI, data protection and data security.

Other actions proposed by the government include the development of "a clearer policy framework to identify where greater data access and availability across and with the economy can and should support growth and innovation", and an analysis of what form the policy framework should take. It further outlined its intention to address barriers to data sharing in general.

Cameron said the government appears intent on achieving these aims without additional regulation, in contrast to EU policy makers who earlier this year pledged to legislate in the area of data sharing and access and on use of AI in a bid to boost the digital single market. "There is a critical balance to be struck between not stifling innovation and the commercial incentives to collecting data and ensuring there is sufficient regulation to protect consumers and provide for fair competition," Cameron said.

Some new models for incentivising data sharing are already being explored, Cameron said, including following on from the work done by the Office for AI and Innovate UK in partnership with the Open Data Institute to explore data trusts. Pinsent Masons worked with the ODI and Office for AI on two data trust pilots, and assessed the legal and governance considerations for data trusts in a report produced in collaboration with Queen Mary University of London and BPE Solicitors for the ODI.

Cameron said there is plenty of activity in this area, including work led by Wendy Hall to build on the ODI pilots, and opportunity to build on these initiatives and address some of the challenges to data availability identified by the government. These include "the benefits relating to increased data sharing not always being felt by the organisation incurring the cost of collection and maintenance".

A number of the actions proposed by the government in the national data strategy address problems highlighted with public sector use and sharing of data, including technical capability. The government said, among other things, it would "launch a programme of work to tackle the cultural and coordination barriers to good quality data" and "commit to resolving the long-running problems of legacy IT and broader data infrastructure".

In the context of improving data skills, the government said it wants to "understand how data science is integrated into relevant technical qualifications, ensure that good quality data science courses are offered and that data related skills are given due consideration in their work to support emerging skills", and that it would consider the various roles played by bodies such as the Alan Turing Institute, the National Innovation Centre for Data, the Open Data Institute, the Data Skills Taskforce, the AI Council, the UK Cyber Security Council, and the Data Lab, in seeking "ways to improve the leadership and facilitation of new and better collaborations between industry, the public sector, universities and institutes".

Information law expert Michele Voznick of Pinsent Masons said the vision expressed in the national data strategy through its pillars and missions are aligned to addressing the challenges organisations face currently in using, sharing and accessing data across sectors.

"The strategy demonstrates a commitment by the government to help enable effective use and sharing of data," Voznick said. "The outputs which will be proposed in 2021 should provide a comprehensive framework and concrete actions to enable these goals to be achieved without placing prohibitive compliance cost burdens on organisations – both businesses and public sector bodies that wish to share data – whilst balancing the protection and ethical use of data for individuals."

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