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UK government commits to opening up data in bid to push adoption of AI

Opening up data is vital to government plans to push adoption of artificial intelligence across all sectors of the UK economy

The government has committed to opening up data to help drive the adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) across all sectors as part of its Grand Challenge to place the UK at the forefront of the AI and data revolution.

The AI Grand Challenge is one of four such challenges set out in last year’s Industrial Strategy. These also include harnessing innovation to deal with an ageing population and becoming a world leader in shaping the future of mobility.

According to Margot James, minister of state for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), who was speaking at a Public Sector Innovation conference last week, the government is using open data and collaboration with industry partners to seize the opportunities presented by AI technology.

“The full benefits to society and the economy that can come from AI can only be realised if it is widely used,” said James. “That means government working together with industry to seize the prize of a reported additional £232bn on GDP by 2030.”

However, despite today’s abundance of data, its potential is largely untapped due to much of it being locked in silos. Being a data-driven technology, this is a huge barrier in the further development of AI.

“Data is a critical part of our national digital infrastructure and fundamental, of course, to AI,” said James. “Without access to good quality data from a range of sources, AI technologies cannot deliver on that promise of better, more efficient and seamless services. Government is really committed to opening up more data in a way that makes it reusable and easily accessible.”

James said the government had already opened up more than 44,000 datasets, citing this as a major reason for the UK topping Oxford Insight’s Government AI Readiness Index in 2017.

“Without access to good quality data from a range of sources, AI technologies cannot deliver on the promise of better, more efficient and seamless services. Government is committed to opening up more data in a way that makes it reusable and easily accessible”
Margot James, DCMS

However, the index’s analysis said the UK faced stiff competition from China, the US, Russia and Canada, which have also announced plans to be world leaders in AI, saying it must continue to invest to remain competitive in the future.

Part of this investment will come in efforts to expand the AI talent pool, as well as upskilling the current workforce, to leverage the open data properly.

James cited the development of an industry-funded AI master’s programme that would train 200 students a year, and said it was also supporting work towards an additional 200 PhD places in AI and related disciplines by 2020, claiming that by 2025 there should be at least 1,000 government-supported PhD places in AI at any one time.

Attracting talent from abroad is also a priority, which is partly being done through a separate fellowship programme for international researchers. “We’ve doubled the number of exceptional talent visas to 2,000 to help attract the brightest and the best to live and work in the UK,” said James.

Data sharing needs to be safe, fair and ethical

Open data, however, also carriers a number of risks, especially when personal data is involved. To help safeguard against the negative impacts, the Office for AI will work with a number of organisations, such as the Open Data Institute (ODI) and the newly formed Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation.

“The Office for AI will work with the Open Data Institute to run a number of pilot data trusts – frameworks to enable safe, fair and ethical data sharing between organisations to resolve common problems and bring societal and economic benefits,” said James.

“I see a role for the new Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation in terms of engaging with the public and bringing their concerns to the attention of decision-makers in both the private sector and the public sector so that we are not making policy in a vacuum,” she added.

“Leading public debate on this is absolutely crucial. I think there is a great danger that if we get ahead of ourselves in government and in industry and we allow public debates to fall behind, then we will fail to build the trust that is absolutely vital to the success of this endeavour.

“We want to make sure that the public sector can work hand-in-hand with the private sector to deliver more solutions that are truly transformative and revolutionise public service delivery.”

Read more about open data and innovation

  • Despite today’s abundance of data, most of it remains locked in silos, meaning new governance structures are needed to open it up and unlock its potential value to society.
  • Chair of the new Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation says collaboration is vital for developing effective frameworks to manage the proliferation of AI and data-driven technologies.
  • A report looking at how startups can penetrate the policing market has been released, but there are still a number of practical and ethical challenges facing SMEs moving into the space.

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