UK publishes National Data Strategy

The UK Government’s National Data Strategy underlines the needs to improve data interoperability and to develop agreed standards if we want more effective use of data across the built environment

National Data StrategyThe UK Government has launched a National Data Strategy and has set out actions it will take to support the use of data in the UK (news release). The strategy puts data at the heart of the country’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic “so companies and organisations can use it to drive digital transformation, innovate and boost growth across the economy.”

The strategy lays out five priority ‘missions’ the government must take to capitalise on the opportunities data offers:

  • Unlocking the value of data across the economy
  • Securing a pro-growth and trusted data regime
  • Transforming government’s use of data to drive efficiency and improve public services
  • Ensuring the security and resilience of the infrastructure on which data relies, and
  • Championing the international flow of data

The government’s plans for a thriving, fast-growing digital sector in the UK include the appointment of a new Government Chief Data Officer. This person will lead a whole-government approach to transforming its use of data to drive efficiency and improve public services.

“A leading digital nation”

The UK is already a leading digital nation, the strategy says. Data-enabled UK service exports were estimated to be £243 billion in 2019, or 75% of total service exports.  The strategy commits to developing a clear policy framework to determine interventions needed to unlock the value of data across the economy and help the UK recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. This demonstrated the power of technology to respond to rapidly changing health demands, to keep supermarket shelves stocked and transport moving, and to support people working from home. Existing UK strengths can be leveraged to boost use of data in business, government and civil society, the strategy says. Notably:

It proposes an overhaul in the use of data across the public sector and the government will launch a programme of work to transform the way data is managed, used and shared internally and with wider public sectors organisations, to create an ethical, joined up and interoperable data infrastructure.

Dr Jeni Tennison of the Open Data Institute said:

People and organisations of all kinds are facing big challenges over the next few years. Data can help us all to navigate them, increasing our understanding of our changing world and informing the decisions we make. Data can also cause harm, for example through over-collection and inappropriate use. At the ODI, we want data to work for everyone, which means ensuring it both gets to the people who need it, and that it is collected, used and shared in trustworthy ways.

This National Data Strategy consultation is an important opportunity for us all to explore and influence how data should be used to support the UK’s economy, environment and communities, and we look forward to the debate.

(The strategy is not set in stone; consultation questions are included throughout the text.)

Construction and BIM

In a list under the strategy’s first mission (Unlocking the value of data across the economy), construction is one of the sectors with most to gain from better data availability. And the strategy highlights the need to improve coordination and interoperability, saying:

The lack of basic coordination and interoperability both within and between organisations can drive inefficiency, a lack of accountability and an inability to thoroughly evaluate or plan. Data that is not usable, linkable or comparable between organisations means that, nationally, we lose out on … the ability to pool data from multiple sources and sectors to create new economic opportunities, or to save lives.

“Indeed, even those working on advanced technologies report that poor data foundations can be a real blocker for driving the transformative power of data.”

BIM (sic)The paper says poor data quality and, relatedly, a lack of agreed standards are clear barriers to the effective use of data, with evidence of a lack of (central) ownership of data standards/ metadata/ APIs, a lack of skills in managing data, fragmentation in the systems used to manage data, and ongoing resourcing issues linked to set up and maintenance costs. It acknowledges that these costs could be especially burdensome for smaller organisations, or for organisations who make data as a byproduct of their operations rather than as a discrete business product.

BIM: building data foundations

In section 4 – Data foundations: ensuring data is fit for purpose – the strategy talks of construction’s progress with BIM (which it misnames), but observes:

“There was anecdotal evidence from our call for evidence that in general SMEs find it more difficult than large companies to invest in and maintain high quality data. There are pockets of stronger evidence for particular types of business. For example, the construction industry has well recognised Business Information Management (BIM) standards [sic]. However, a range of academic studies find SMEs in construction generally do not use BIM. The issues identified by SMEs include:

  • perception that BIM is only of benefit for larger construction projects
  • high set-up costs of software
  • licensing of software
  • lack of in-house skills and/or cost of training
  • information retention across platforms (interoperability) – despite the industrial strategy supporting BIM
  • lack of demand from clients (so no push to adopt the greater functionality)

Digital Twins

Data for the Public GoodBIM is a fundamental building block for digital twins of infrastructure assets. The strategy follows its discussion of BIM with observations on how location data and data about the built environment have helped the UK’s National Digital Twin Programme (NDTP). It highlights the Centre for Digital Built Britain’s Gemini Principles. These set out some key steps (including more open, interoperable information) to support better decision-making across the whole life of built assets for the benefit of the wider economy, society and environment.

One of its illustrative case studies covers joint research between the Singapore government and Ordnance Survey to develop its 3D ‘digital twin’ of Singapore. Another relates to the National Infrastructure Commission’s Data for the Public Good report, and the NDTP’s ongoing development of an ‘Information Management Framework’ (IMF). It says:

“The IMF will create and enable the adoption of the common information management components to enable the integration of data in a consistent, resilient and secure manner across organisations and sectors. As the IMF is developed and approved, its parts will be made available nationally to progressively enable a UK system of trusted, decentralised and interoperable information exchange. This will create a data infrastructure for the built environment, and pave the way for the National Digital Twin.”

The Extranet Evolution view

This National Data Strategy continues the digital push that has been evident for over a decade. Even the hitherto digitally lagging construction industry is being pushed towards digital transformation. The launch of the 2011 UK Construction Strategy (post), for example, fired the opening shots in pushing adoption of BIM – championed by Paul Morrell, the government’s then Chief Construction Advisor (2009 post). Sadly, perhaps, construction no longer has such an advisor – though the government clearly thinks digital working warrants the appointment of a Chief Data Officer.

Good Data for the Public GoodIt is encouraging that ‘interoperability’ (along with ‘interoperable’, cited 38 times in the strategy) is regarded as a key requirement. This has been a recurring theme in the construction industry for years. However, there are now concerted efforts in the UK to look at the issue, particularly as it relates to BIM (see Engineers seek ‘Good data for the public good’), with a Construction Innovation Hub-backed BIM Interoperability Expert Group (BIEG) exploring the issues. But the mention of high set-up costs of software and licensing issues surrounding BIM is also a reminder of recent industry conversations about some software providers’ commercial and product strategies (Design firms demand change at Autodesk).

The Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden talks about helping British businesses make the most of the digital revolution over the years and decades to come, and positioning the UK as a global champion of data use. This echoes the ambitions of one of his ministerial predecessors, Francis Maude when he launched the UK’s BIM push in 2011 (post). Supported by Paul Morrell and his successor Peter Hansford, that BIM push helped UK prototype standards become the foundations of international standards. Many UK AEC businesses are now helping other countries improve their built environment digital capabilities.

SME digitalisation is key

As mentioned above, however, BIM adoption has not been universal, particularly among SMEs. Some businesses remain wary of investing in digital transformation (perhaps even more so now, with some businesses concerned about recessionary pressures), or sticking to the ways they’ve always done things (a GoReport survey, May 2020 post, found 39% of businesses content with traditional methods and 33% fearing change). Despite what is sometimes expressed in a few construction businesses, information technology is no longer a ‘necessary evil’, an overhead to be kept as low as possible, or simply a tactical concern (in 2018, 26% of businesses in a Plangrid survey admitted to having no technology strategy, while 36% simply bought tools on an impromptu basis – post).

The National Data Strategy will need to drive change and create opportunities at all levels. A compelling case will need to be made if BIM and other digital technologies are widely to become business as usual. In a highly fragmented industry largely serviced by SMEs, some industry practitioners will need to relax their old ways and embrace the new. As Dowden says: “… data and data use are opportunities to be embraced, rather than a threat to be guarded against.”

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