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March 11, 2020updated 13 Jul 2022 6:30am

A National Asset: Why Data (Sovereignty) is Vital for UK Citizens

"Deals with companies the size of Amazon can also be of concern when it comes to the possibility of a 'data monopoly'"

By CBR Staff Writer

Despite tight budgets and limited resources, great strides have been made in digitising many of the UK’s public services, writes Simon Hansford, CEO, UKCloud. With developments in advanced analytics and process automation, public sector organisations have begun to invest in smart infrastructure, greatly enhancing communal services.

The health sector has more obviously benefited from technology in recent years, but what often goes unnoticed is the improvement in traffic control, street lighting and beneath the concrete; drainage and sewerage management is now better regulated by monitors and sensors. These subtle enhancements become clear if we look closer.

Simon Hansford, CEO, UKCloud

Simon Hansford, CEO, UKCloud

While these are laudable developments, more work needs to be done to ensure we treat the data that powers such technological solutions as a national asset. It’s important to understand the value of this data, and manage it accordingly. Take artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning: the insights these future-facing technologies can bring are only as good as the data that powers them.

The government recognises this: last year, the Health Secretary announced £250 million investment in AI, with a new National Artificial Intelligence Lab harnessing the power of AI to improve the health and lives of patients. Bringing together the industry’s best academics, specialists and technology companies to work on some of the biggest challenges in healthcare, the AI Lab’s work encompasses earlier cancer detection, new dementia treatments, and more personalised care – all powered by citizen’s data.

Evidently, data can enhance the operation of governments and public sector organisations if analysed and applied intelligently. The insight it provides can inform and power many of the publicly funded resources we rely on each day, such as healthcare and education. Local government and national defence can also be supported by the wealth of valuable data they generate, although care must be taken to ensure it is collected and managed appropriately.

As such, it’s vital that public sector organisations comply with increasingly tight legislation such as GDPR, designed to protect the privacy of EU citizens’ personal data, in order to prevent this information falling into the wrong hands.

Data-Driven change

There’s endless potential for profound social change once privacy is mastered. Local authorities are now beginning to tap into this through fresh applications of data, for instance, the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham has developed a social index to more accurately map out people’s needs. Connecting data from local schools and GPs reveals correlations between wellbeing and loneliness, highlighting patterns and areas of social isolation that can then be actively addressed.

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Positive schemes such as this are only made possible through effective data-sharing. It’s vital, therefore, that the tech companies whose responsibility it is to manage the data are both trustworthy and accountable – but public trust in some of the bigger players is in short supply. Concerns have been raised, for example, about a deal between the Department of Health and Social Care and Amazon, under which NHS data is handed over to the web giant for its own uses.

Putting all the nation’s data “eggs” in concentrated baskets is a bad idea, warns UKCloud CEO Simon Hansford

Deals with companies the size of Amazon can also be of concern when it comes to the possibility of a “data monopoly”. A very real danger, hoarding assets can lead to a lack of competition, worrying for local businesses and communities alike. As we saw with Carillion, putting one’s eggs in just one or two large baskets can have serious consequences should things turn sour.

The collapse of Carillion, once one of the largest providers of services to the public sector, highlighted the risks that arise when one provider holds all the cards. It can quickly become the government’s responsibility to bail out collapsed businesses when things go awry, along with their dozens of contracts, thousands of employees, and innumerable resources. We simply cannot afford for a situation like this to arise with our data.

It’s clear that relying solely on one organisation to manage our data is neither sustainable nor resilient in the long term.

Even Jeff Bezos himself admitted that “one day Amazon will fail”. Instead, public sector organisations should take tangible steps to minimise the impact any future catastrophic collapses may have on their data.

Retaining Sovereignty

Data sovereignty can also be an issue. According to think tank CEPS, around 92 percent of data in the western world is currently stored in the US. However, the US CLOUD Act means that any data held by US companies – no matter where in the world it’s held – is subject to US law. It’s unsurprising, then, that the UK’s Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy recently identified “growing strains on the UK’s relationship with the United States” as having the potential to undermine our national security in the future.

The public are already deeply concerned by how personal health records are handled, and in some cases, misused and sold to third-party pharmaceutical giants without consent. Voices against the US data-monopoly are growing increasingly louder, though, and steps are being taken to reclaim power over what is becoming the most prized of assets. Last year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke for many in her call for data sovereignty and suggested that US tech giants’ advantage will create dependencies that she’s not sure are a good thing.

Hence, the Gaia-X project, a multi-lateral push for a European cloud network, was born. With Brexit underway, there’s an increasingly urgent need for the UK to undertake its own similar initiative, retaining ownership of its own data in order to remain competitive on the global stage.

We don’t know yet how all of this will play out. But wherever the issue of data sovereignty leads, the UK government must start prioritising the nation’s data. Without conviction in its ambition for the application of data, and in its capability to transform our public services, the UK will find itself caught between the data managers of the EU and the US.

As a result, it will eventually lose its digital resilience – and its ability to innovate and transform services for the betterment of Britain and its citizens. If this happens, among other consequences, we’ll fail to achieve a genuine healthtech revolution, which has the power to change and save lives by enabling the NHS to predict and personalise its care, powered by algorithms that feed on data.  To fully capitalise on its benefits, we need to recognise that data is a valuable asset, and begin treating it wisely, safely, and ethically.

See also: Microsoft Buckles Under EU Pressure: Changes Cloud Contracts to Reflect “Data Controller” Role 

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