The Royal Statistical Society's policy manager, Olivia Varley-Winter, looks at new government proposals around data, evidence and statistics and explains how the RSS intends to help shape them as they move forward.
Our Data Manifesto points to data as a driver of prosperity. After the Chancellor’s Autumn Budget, the UK government released a white paper setting out its industrial strategy which recognises, in several different ways, how important it is for the UK to harness data for prosperity and decision making:
1. Research investment in artificial intelligence (AI) and the data economy
A new ‘grand challenge’ for AI and the data economy will call for businesses, research institutions and the government to work together to realise the value of connected, large scale datasets. It will also address areas such as visual perception, speech recognition, language translation, and machine learning. The challenge supports a ‘sector deal’ for AI, which will include funding for a Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation.
Our view: The strength of statistical science, across disciplines, research institutes, and industry, should be a priority for UK Research and Innovation. We would like to see a good level of collaboration across sectors and disciplines, and distribution of the impact from AI focused funds.
2. Strengthening the evidence base on the economy
The industrial strategy promises wider support and interest in the Office for National Statistics' work on economic statistics, and recognises that this will provide a stronger evidence base for industrial strategy, saying that: 'To support evaluation and further understanding of the economy, we aim to make the UK the best understood major economy. We will be developing a joint programme of work with the Office for National Statistics, academics and other stakeholders that will identify the gaps in our evidence base.'
Our view: We are delighted that the industrial strategy recognises the ambition of the ONS’s work programme. In light of the recommendations of the Bean Review, which proposed a wide range of actions to improve economic statistics, the RSS is working in partnership with the Royal Economic Society and with the ONS to support this agenda.
3. Support for devolved and local area statistics
For understanding the economy, the white paper says:
'UK government also stands ready to work with the devolved administrations, where appropriate, to ensure the strongest possible data is held and used across the UK; in particular as we continue to transfer powers from the UK to the Scottish Parliament in line with the Scotland Act 2016. We want to make more micro-level data available so people can study and understand our economy. This will enable us to improve significantly how we identify strengths and weaknesses in specific parts of the country. It will provide a shared evidence base on which we can build our industrial strategy.' (p28).
Our view: Devolved and micro-level data should be firmly on the agenda. Our manifesto advocates increasing access to local data, saying that ‘regional and small area statistics are also needed to understand and improve the economy, and a lack of local data is a weakness for business and policy decisions'.
4. Support for maths education in England
The white paper outlines a new funding incentive for schools in England to enrol additional post-16 students on level 3 mathematics courses (£600 for each additional student). It says that ‘Improving the take up of maths qualifications and the quality of maths teaching across the education system is one of the most significant interventions that government can make to tackle STEM skills shortages and secure wider benefits for the economy’.
Our view: We welcomed this initiative in response to the Autumn Budget, and have written to the education secretary, Justine Greening, asking for AS Level Further Mathematics and A Level Statistics to be included to provide a greater range of options to schools and students.
5. Opening up mapping data
The white paper includes provision for new governance and investment to open up access to Ordnance Survey data. This says 'To further boost the digital economy, the government will work with Ordnance Survey (OS) and [a] new Commission, by May 2018, to establish how to open up freely OS MasterMap data to UK-based small businesses in particular, under an Open Government Licence or through an alternative mechanism, while maintaining the OS’s strategic strengths. We are providing £80m over the next two years to support this work.' (p158-159).
Our view: The Geospatial Data Commission is an exciting new development. Our Data Manifesto calls for further progress on open data, and looks to the Government to open up geospatial data (alongside, ideally, addressing data) as core reference data on which society depends. This should act as a catalyst to release economic value from other open data sets.
6. Hubs for research using health data
The white paper says that ‘the NHS generates powerful datasets that could be harnessed in a safe, fair and secure manner to develop new tools to diagnose and treat illness earlier’, and outlines plans to develop regional ‘Digital Innovation Hubs [to] support the use of data for research purposes within the strict parameters set by the National Data Guardian.’ (p54)
Our view: The use of health and social care data for research, and its linkage to other datasets, is immensely important and helps to save lives. We hope that the approach in the NHS to data sharing will adequately address requirements to connect health and social care data with other administrative data to make new research findings at population level.
Our evidence to the industrial strategy
The data economy was the focus of RSS evidence submitted in advance of the White Paper (PDF), in which we sought to strengthen:
- Education and skills, with support for pathways that ensure more young people develop mathematical, statistical and data skills;
- Statistical science across the research base (PDF), as a cross-cutting priority for research and training;
- Future access to data, through accordance with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, and the development of regional and local data;
- Public trust and support for uses of data, analytics and AI with a new national body to strengthen research and the work of existing regulators in this area (PDF) - eg on decision-making by algorithms.