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DCMS’s Whittingdale: National data strategy not tied to EU trade deal

Minister tells ODI Summit that national data strategy is nearly finished and will fuel UK economic growth post-Brexit and post-pandemic

John Whittingdale, minister of state for media and data at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) told today’s Open Data Summit that the imminent “national data strategy” will fuel economic growth after Brexit and the Covid-19 health pandemic.

Whittingdale described the strategy as a “broad framework” that invites input from companies, organisations and individuals interested in data use to stoke the economy. He invited input up to the deadline of 2 December, and said the strategy itself would be published “in due course”.

The DCMS originally published guidance for the strategy in July 2019 – when Theresa May was still prime minister.

The strategy was most recently announced on 9 September as still a work in progress. To help shape the final document, the department said at that time that it was launching a “consultation to help shape the core principles of the strategy, our ambitions for the use of data across the economy and policy proposals”.

The final publication of the long-gestating strategy looks to be aligned with the timing of the outcome of the UK government’s trade negotiations with the European Union (EU), ahead of the end of the transition period following the UK’s departure from the union.

Whittingdale said at the ODI Summit that with respect to the impending end of the transition period: “We recognise that the flow of information across borders fuels global business operations, supply chains and trade. As we approach the end of the transition period in just a few weeks’ time, and no longer bound by European law, we want to champion the benefits that data can deliver.

“The immediate issue is whether we can continue to maintain the recognition of data adequacy with the European Union.

“It is our ambition to achieve an agreement with the EU that the UK remains data adequate, so that there is no impediment to the flow of data. We don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t get data adequacy, but that is obviously something that is controlled by the European Commission, and time is beginning to run short. So, it is only sensible that we begin to put in place measures so that we are ready should it not be possible to achieve an agreement in place by the end of the year.”

Read more about government digital strategy

Whittingdale said the government has been talking to businesses “to encourage them to put in place alternative transfer mechanisms if adequacy is not achieved”.

Speaking more broadly about the economic value of data, the minister said that there had, in his view, been too much reporting in the press about the dark side of data: “The negative side has had too much attention.”

He added: “The reporting in the popular press and the national media was previously about cyber hacking, phishing attacks, and stealing data – which does show that it is very valuable.”

But that was changing as a result of the beneficial use of data during the Covid-19 pandemic, said Whittingdale. “We want to highlight the huge benefits data can bring to the economic health of the country,” he said.

The ODI is one of the organisations that is making submissions to the national data strategy. Jeni Tennison, its chief executive officer, said in a press conference ahead of the event that the organisation would respond to the strategy later this month, having convened roundtables with other organisations, such as the Ada Lovelace Institute, the Institute for Government, and the Royal Statistical Society.

She added: “We are positive about the role that data can play. But that is only one side of the story: there is the potential for harm. The part that we are emphasising in our response to the strategy is that those two things need to go hand in hand, so that trustworthiness and ethics are not nice-to-haves, but need to be integrated.”

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