The Minister for Cabinet Office spoke at the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on open data, digital technology and innovation in Wales.
It’s good to be in Newport.
Though I have to say I’m glad I’m not visiting Wales in a few weeks’ time. If the Rugby World Cup was anything to go by it might be quite painful for an Englishman to visit Wales after 12 March.
The rugby team’s obviously one centre of Welsh excellence. But later today I’ll be visiting several other local innovation centres, and I’ve already been hugely impressed by what you’ve shown me here at the ONS, which has underlined your commitment to technological modernisation and the honing of talent.
Seventy-five years ago, Winston Churchill created the Central Statistical Office (CSO) to improve on the coherence and availability of national statistics.
Plenty has changed since 1941 – not just the year the CSO was brought into this world, but also the first functional British jet, tupperware, velcro and, of course, the slinky.
But the 2 challenges Churchill was trying to tackle – coherence and openness – remain the same, even as the world has become more complex and diverse.
As technology marches on, we have unparalleled opportunities to use data to transform the services we provide and improve how the country is run. It’s more essential today than ever before that government is built on a foundation of high-quality, comprehensive and coherent statistics.
It’s said that 90% of all the data ever produced in history was generated in the past 2 years. The different kinds of data are also multiplying, from purchasing transactions to sensors, the Internet of Things and social networking sites.
New open data sets of unprecedented scale and variety are springing up, often in real time. This presents us in government with an opportunity like nothing we’ve ever seen before.
It’s a revolution we need to grasp with both hands. That means 3 things - it means recognising the potential of the rich national resource that data presents, it means being curious about new ideas and ways of doing absolutely everything, and it means opening ourselves up to the public and towards each other across government. There is massive potential in data, we need the curiosity and openness. Let us take these 3 in turn.
In the public and private sector, data is fuelling improvements unimaginable a few short years ago. It’s transforming how we travel and shop, the way we go out and the way we interact with each other.
And it’s changing how we deliver government.
We can deliver services that are cheaper, faster, more accessible and more secure. Services that respond with targeted solutions to specific problems. Services driven not by Whitehall but by the needs of citizens.
The potential of data as a national asset
To do this we must recognise the raw potential of the data at our fingertips.
Newport has long been a world-leading centre of industry – it was a crucial coal port and a focal point for the South Wales Valleys throughout the industrial era.
200 years ago this city was a hotbed of the industrial revolution. It is no stranger to leading industry, to innovation and to the tide of technological change.
Today we live in an entirely different world. Today, instead of coal, data is the most valuable raw material of our age. The way I see it, statistics are its refined product, and this is the refinery.
And to fulfil the potential of the ONS in the 21st century we still need to be the best and the most imaginative country in the world when it comes to using our resources.
We’re in the foothills of a data revolution. Data is no longer just a record of something that happened. It’s a mineable commodity from which we can extract value. It’s the unseen infrastructure of the digital economy, as important as any road or railway.
It’s not just the ONS. In South Wales we have a big data cluster: DVLA, Companies House, ONS and the IPO.
So there is increasing potential for a South Wales big data cluster and build the ecosystem-public, private and academic that can deliver the capability we need.
The ONS’ role in harnessing this resource
To harness our data resources, statistics will be crucial. Statistics are taking on ever greater importance in a world underpinned by increasingly evidence-based decisions. And that goes far beyond working out the odds at Cheltenham.
The ONS is crucial in the production of the statistics government relies on to make good policy, and its statistics are held in high regard throughout government, business and the wider public.
The 2021 census is a valuable opportunity to re-assert that reputation and consolidate our data resources.
When the first census of population took place back in 1801, the population of England and Wales was given as 9 million.
Our next census will be the largest peacetime operation ever undertaken in the UK. It will be digital-by-default, and we are aiming for the highest online response target of any census in the world, at 75%.
In the census each decade and the work that you do in Newport and Titchfield each year, you take raw data and turn it into life-changing improvements, everywhere from the classroom to the hospital bed. In doing so you change lives up and down the country.
So my point is the potential of technology. My second is about our response: curiosity. It’s crucial that we engage with curiosity towards change.
You’re pioneering the data science agenda, leading analytical professions in building the right infrastructure and developing the specialist skills we need to make the most of the data revolution.
Through the recently initiated Data Science Learning Academy, you’re spreading that leadership.
And you’re pushing the agenda across government through programmes like the Data Science Accelerator.
You’re expanding your horizons beyond government. The Big Data Team’s efforts on web scraping show how we can harness alternative data sources - in this case real-time supermarket data - to deliver more accurate, cost-effective outputs.
The same spirit of curiosity is at the heart of your innovation lab, which uses state-of-the-art technology to find new data sources and techniques. And it’s why I’ve asked the Open Data Institute to help us connect with the start-ups leading the data field.
Next I’m visiting the Alacrity Foundation. The ONS’ partnership with this unique organisation is a great example of how we can partner with outside bodies to nurture the brightest and best young talent.
To succeed and thrive in this new world, where knowledge is so dispersed, we need to be as curious as possible and embrace not just our own ideas, but also those at the cutting edge of the data revolution. And I urge you to be part of that revolution.
That brings me to my third point. I want the spirit of curiosity you’re showing here to be embedded in everything government is doing. The best ideas can come from absolutely anywhere. And that’s why we need to open ourselves up to ideas like never before.
The opportunities for innovation are a function of how much raw information is out there, and how many people can access and harness that information.
I’m delighted to see you continuing to open up your website, taking in huge levels of feedback and making your gateway to the public more agile, in a more cost-efficient way. I’m thrilled to see the new website go live.
It’s part of our radical open data policy: we’ve now published 23,000 datasets, covering £200 billion of public spending.
And part of being open is being open about the challenges we face. The ONS’ work is going to become even more crucial in the coming years. So it’s imperative that we keep up with how the world is changing.
Yes, the digital world is a maelstrom right now, but if we work together we can do more than just keep our heads above water – we can ride the waves to unimaginable places.
Yes, under John Pullinger’s impressive leadership the team will have to be adaptable in its size, shape, and skill-set.
But I want to underline this message you’ve heard before. Newport is Britain’s home of economic statistics, and that is not a resource we are going to squander. The ONS will stay in Newport.
And more than that, we’re going to invest to build our long-term capacity here, working with others in the region to create a hub and a centre of excellence for data handling and economic analysis. We’re going to double-down on Newport.
Of course, the digital world means roles will change, and some old ways of doing things will cease to exist. But we’re committed to working with you in that transition.
Through the Learning Academy and other initiatives, everyone will have the chance to gain new skills and continue to make a massively valuable contribution.
Change is a challenge, but also an opportunity – an opportunity for all of us to gain new skills, and for you to re-assert the crucial contribution the ONS makes to our country.
Your programme of change and Charlie Bean’s review will give the ONS a foundation to plan for the future, and to stay ahead of the curve of digital change with a strong, positive vision.
As the report highlights, we need an ONS that is less reactive and more proactive; more curious, open and self-critical.
These are just some of the challenges you’ll face in the years ahead, but I’m confident through the changes you’re making you’ll be more than capable of overcoming them.
Cabinet Office support and reform package
We are here to support you as we work together to reform government and unleash human ingenuity at all levels of the public sector.
Finally let me set out some of the most important projects this change will feed into. One big step we must take across government is to build single, canonical data registers kept up-to-date by one responsible authority and used across government. We don’t need 7 lists of countries of the world. We need 1, and it probably should be maintained by the Foreign Office.
We are also working together on how we share data within government. We’ll do this while maintaining the appropriate safeguards, but the prize is extremely valuable – more efficient and high-quality statistics, and huge potential for improvements to public services.
We will shortly bring forward proposals to improve the legal framework around research and statistics, tackling fraud and debt, and improving public services.
We’ve consulted widely over 2 years of collaboration, to build modern rules to govern the use of data in public services.
We want to give public authorities much greater clarity about what data can be shared, cutting delays so research with economic and social benefits can be conducted in a timely fashion.
We will put in place specific safeguards to ensure any information that could be used to identify individuals is protected, enhancing privacy.
These changes to legislation will not only ensure you have the tools to produce world-class statistics, they will let government feed the most up-to-date and relevant data into policy decisions, helping us deliver reforms from the Troubled Families programme to better targeted fuel poverty payments. They will better equip us to tackle fraud and debt.
Through them we can enhance social mobility, crime prevention and improve services for the citizens we serve.
So, these are times of change. We can – and must – tap into that same spirit in the data revolution. That’s what it will take for us to turn our rich data assets into world-leading innovation.
If we do this right the prizes are huge, and will change the very fabric of how the country is run.
Let us tackle these challenges head on and turn them into opportunities. You’ve already shown you’re willing and able to do this. We are backing you to deliver. I can’t wait to see what you come up with next.