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February 19, 2024

If the UK government is serious about the success of tech startups, the first step is better data – and more of it.

From transportation to healthcare, a more liberal attitude to the provision of public datasets could prove transformative for UK tech startups.

By Kir Nuthi

In the 2010s, the UK was a clear leader when it came to the data economy. Startups benefited from an easily accessible web portal that made reams of public data open access by default. Apps like Citymapper became overnight successes – largely because they were using publicly held and open data to unlock previously untold economic benefits.

We’re excited to see the UK step up yet again and make “data access a government priority.” But while many of the UK’s startups and founders are excited to get started, they’re still concerned they face formidable challenges in accessing and harnessing government-held and government-collected data. If the government’s new data goals are to be met, our public sector needs to focus as much on data quality as they do data quantity.

An AI-generated image of the UK Houses of Parliament dripping binary code, used to illustrate an op-ed about UK tech startups.
As far as data goes, there is a huge potential trickle-down benefit for British tech startups from the UK government and its reservoir of statistics on public health and transportation. (Photo by Shutterstock)

Anonymised public datasets would help tech startups thrive

Many of the country’s tech startups and scaleups want to use public data to tackle real-world problems efficiently and create updates that work better for their consumers. For example, startups could use anonymised health data to help doctors better analyse patient health metrics or more accurately judge how successful treatments like fertility care could be.

But these same startups often struggle with outdated, inaccessible, and fragmented data sets. Public sector data often lacks the granularity or level of detail necessary for today’s data analytics. Founders regularly tell us that these data sets are not updated enough or don’t get measured along regular time intervals – both issues that could make it hard for them to check if their assumptions or services work in close-to-current scenarios. And if that wasn’t enough, public sector data can often be fundamentally hard to find in the first place because it is only partially accessible to the public.

So when the Secretary of State Michelle Donelan calls data “as much a fuel for growth as capital itself,” here’s exactly what we think could help unlock that data-driven economic growth.

A dedicated funding pot housed within DSIT could empower departments to streamline data access processes, unleashing a torrent of entrepreneurial ingenuity to reinvent and revitalise sectors like education and transport and inspire newer technologies in evolving sectors like Net Zero and augmented reality. How these departments clean the data will differ on a case-by-case basis but, at minimum, all departments should aim to make their datasets as clean, as specific, and as updated as possible.

Building the next Citymapper

Many of the founders we’ve consulted also want more than the data sets in these spaces that are already available. Founders have called for more data from the HMRC and Home Office as well as more niche agricultural data, property lease and ownership data, interoperable and anonymised health data, electoral roll, and driver’s licence registration sets. What founders ultimately want is to create the next Citymapper – but to do so they need access to as much clean and GDPR-compliant data as possible and not just data that skims the surface.

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Finally, the UK should commit to creating entirely new public-held data sets. Bluntly, the cost of acquiring data is exorbitant and publicly held data sets provide a critical benefit to tech startups – they offer a cheaper, more efficient alternative to conventional forms of data collection. The provision of a variety of publicly held datasets, even if they’re not data about public services, will only add to that benefit. For example, a potentially elusive but highly desired pile of publicly-held foundation model training data could help UK tech startups unlock new ideas they would not have been able to think about without the research aid of artificial intelligence.

What’s clear is this – both founders and the government are keen on ensuring data fuels tomorrow’s economy. And if a few solutions help the UK get its next Citymapper-style overnight successes, that’s a win for the UK economy and the UK tech ecosystem.

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