Data innovation: where to start? With the road less taken

Giulio Quaggiotto at Nesta: “Over the past decade we’ve seen an explosion in the amount of data we create, with more being captured about our lives than ever before. As an industry, the public sector creates an enormous amount of information – from census data to tax data to health data. When it comes to use of the data however, despite many initiatives trying to promote open and big data for public policy as well as evidence-based policymaking, we feel there is still a long way to go.

Why is that? Data initiatives are often created under the assumption that if data is available, people (whether citizens or governments) will use it. But this hasn’t necessarily proven to be the case, and this approach neglects analysis of power and an understanding of the political dynamics at play around data (particularly when data is seen as an output rather than input).

Many data activities are also informed by the ‘extractive industry’ paradigm: citizens and frontline workers are seen as passive ‘data producers’ who hand over their information for it to be analysed and mined behind closed doors by ‘the experts’.

Given budget constraints facing many local and central governments, even well intentioned initiatives often take an incremental, passive transparency approach (i.e. let’s open the data first then see what happens), or they adopt a ‘supply/demand’ metaphor to data provision and usage…..

As a response to these issues, this blog series will explore the hypothesis that putting the question of citizen and government agency – rather than openness, volume or availability – at the centre of data initiatives has the potential to unleash greater, potentially more disruptive innovation and to focus efforts (ultimately leading to cost savings).

Our argument will be that data innovation initiatives should be informed by the principles that:

  • People closer to the problem are the best positioned to provide additional context to the data and potentially act on solutions (hence the importance of “thick data“).

  • Citizens are active agents rather than passive providers of ‘digital traces’.

  • Governments are both users and providers of data.

  • We should ask at every step of the way how can we empower communities and frontline workers to take better decisions over time, and how can we use data to enhance the decision making of every actor in the system (from government to the private sector, from private citizens to social enterprises) in their role of changing things for the better… (More)