‘Create a body to hold data for the public good’

UCL professor points to changing demands on local government in asserting need to recognise societal value of data

Society could benefit from an organisation created to hold data from the public sector and for which there is a public value, a leading academic in the field has suggested.

Data abstractAlan Penn, professor of architectural and urban computing at University College, London, was speaking at Parliament’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Data Analytics’ discussion on Data Driven Local Government.

As the talk turned to the value of data for organisations and individuals, he emphasised the need to recognise that much of it has a potential to the public good, and said this closely reflected the remit of the public sector.

“We need to think about a body to hold data which has the public good enshrined in it,” he said. “We have to see data as owned for the public good, and there will be room for an organisation that especially has that remit.”

He made the point that private sector organisatons have an underlying drive to make a profit from any data they hold and that this creates the pressure for them to apply a commercial model to making it public. In turn, this would make it more difficult for other people to realise the full value of the data.

New challenges

Penn also predicted that automation and community identities in the digital world are going to create new challenges for local government in its use of data.

There will be two big areas of change, one around the automation of many transactions carried out by local authorities which generate large volumes of data. A consequence of this is that there will be less reliance on the staff who have traditionally dealt directly with the public in delivering services, who have often had the best knowledge of their communities.

As the services they deliver are automated they will generate heavy volumes of data, and councils will face questions about how they handle and use it.

The other area is around establishing the identity of communities, in which social networks are playing an increasingly important part.

“They will be one of the forums for considering who we are as a community,” he said, adding that it could help to form communities based on issues, places and origins. As councils deal with these communities they will have to make use of data relevant to each, some of which is not immediately apparent.

“Local authorities will have to be much more nimble and think their way through more diverse and difficult sets of data,” he said. “It will create challenges around how you collect data and how you devise datasets and analysis for learning from it.”

He also said it is important to distinguish the useful information from the “noise” in heavy volumes of data.

“We have to be more intelligent about getting rid of the noise in data aggregation,” he said.

Image by KamiPhuc, CC BY 2.0 through flickr