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Top 10 information management stories of 2020

Here are Computer Weekly’s top 10 information management stories of 2020

The use of data to govern the public sphere and help allay the Covid-19 pandemic were the intertwined information management themes of 2020.

Popular, too, were articles on how to re-think and build business intelligence capabilities in companies beyond the pandemic.

And, for light relief, just as pet ownership increased during the pandemic, readers found solace in stories about companion animals and data, and about digital art in the age of Covid.

The rise and fall of Dominic Cummings was an arc shot through with the dust particles of data. The prime minister’s former chief adviser was well known as a data enthusiast, who started the year with a quest for “maverick” data scientists and software engineers to join him in a mission to revolutionise Whitehall.

In the background to that, and distinct from it, is a long-gestating national data strategy, which should finally emerge in 2021.

Coronavirus was the very ether of the year, however, and picked out below are a handful of the data-centric Covid-19 stories that featured on Computer Weekly in 2020. 

1. The UK government’s weaponisation of data analytics

Data analytics seems to have emerged in 2020 as a cure-all for the Conservative government. But did the prominence accorded it really signal an intellectual breakthrough in the remaking of the UK state? This is not the first time a Conservative political project has tried to appropriate the discipline of data analytics. And an emphasis on the use of “open data” for socio-economic benefit was a theme of the Blair-Brown New Labour government, too.

This blogpost on the latest push to put data analytics in the driving seat of a transformation of the UK civil service pondered its peculiarity.

2. Government publishes long-promised national data strategy

Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden announced, in September, a national data strategy, long in the gestation, that will provide 500 data analyst jobs in the public sector and offer 10 fellowships in Downing Street.

Also announced was a £2.6m project to “address barriers to data sharing and support innovation in the detection of online harms”.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) originally published guidance for the strategy in July 2019 – when Theresa May was still prime minister.

The strategy is still a work in progress. To help shape the final document, the government launched a “consultation to help shape the core principles of the strategy, our ambitions for the use of data across the economy and policy proposals”, completed in early December.

3. DCMS loses government data policy to the Cabinet Office

In a move indicating a tightening of grip by 10 Downing Street, Boris Johnson announced that responsibility for government use of data had transferred from the Department for Digital Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) to the Cabinet Office.

He did so on the day that Parliament was packing its bags for the summer recess.

This reversed the policy of Theresa May’s government, which took government data policy out of the hands of the Government Digital Service (GDS) in 2018, and gave it to DCMS. This was also snuck out at recess commencement time – in that case at Easter.

4. Governing by data: Limits and opportunities

Governing by the use of data analytics may be fashionable, but what are its limits as well as its opportunities, we asked? Lessons were drawn from Estonia, Essex, and healthcare.

Governments have to use more complicated measures of success than commercial organisations, something illustrated by a system that will visualise usage of Estonia’s state portal, which provides information and a gateway to public services in the country.

Also reported on was work carried out by the Essex Centre for Data Analytics, run by the county council, Essex Police and the University of Essex. One project focused on lack of school readiness, something which affected about half of the five-year-olds in Basildon suburb Vange, and which can have long-term impacts on education, income and health.

The potential for more data use in healthcare was also examined, with one example being the development of a single dashboard for accident and emergency services across Greater Manchester, based at an emergency care hub hosted by North West Ambulance Service NHS Trust.

5. UK government coronavirus data flawed and misleading

Government Covid-19 coronavirus data has, wrote SA Mathieson, been a miasma of inexactitude, often basically flawed and misleading

The government’s data on cases and deaths has been used by ministers and journalists as single sources of truth on the pandemic in the UK. But both are flawed, and in some cases misleading, potentially distorting both public understanding and government decision-making.

6. Business data science teams need to be multi-disciplined, says Trainline

Building well-balanced data science teams in conjunction with a relentless focus on creating data-based products for customers are the critical elements of any successful data science programme.

Sam Taylor, head of data science at Trainline, gave this advice to peers, while reflecting on the work of the team they have built over the past four years. And he put a big emphasis on having a core data science team with people from different academic disciplines.

7. BI not BS: How businesses are building futures with data analytics

Business intelligence software is finding an intensified mission as companies try to forecast beyond the global Covid-19 health pandemic. Marc Ambasna-Jones reported on statistics from McKinsey, which revealed that global executives have an optimistic view of their local economies, despite Covid-19.

The article looks at a range of contemporary BI technologies in use – including Tableau, Qlik, and ThoughtSpot. It also examines the concept of data literacy, with Nationwide and Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity to the fore as examples. 

8. CDO interview: Pets at Home uses data analytics to further petcare ‘ecosystem’

Robert Kent, chief data officer for Pets at Home, describes how he has built a data analytics team and technology stack to enhance the petcare company’s understanding of its customers.

Pet ownership has risen during the current public health crisis, and many owners of companion animals look to Pets at Home, and other pet retail outlets, for goods and services that will help them keep their furry friends at the heart of their emotional world.

Kent describes a strategy that involved using data analytics to better serve its customers, under a VIP – Very Important Pet(s) – programme.

9. Guide Dogs data strategy navigates path to organisational view

Guide Dogs CIO Gerard McGovern is mapping out a data strategy that is aimed at taking the charity from an individual to an organisational view of data.

Like other charities, Guide Dogs wants to maximise income from donors, and so its CRM system has that as a purpose. But they also have dog data. And their ambition is, through sophisticated genomics data analysis, to identify which dogs won’t make the grade at earlier stages in the training process. That would mean, we learn, an efficiency gain.

10. Is digital art coming of age under Covid?

Israeli startup Niio is advancing a digital art platform comparable, it believes, with Spotify. Is the digital medium for high art coming of age in these Covid times, at a time when museums and art galleries have had to close their doors to art lovers?

At a time, also, when anyone with a smartphone can publish images and video, what is the specific value of digital art – art that collectors will spend thousands, indeed hundreds of thousands, of their currency of choice on, so long as its scarcity can be verified?

Niio offers artists and their buyers a platform on which to publish and consume art. It uses blockchain technology to create a permanent bond, says its CEO Rob Anders, between a creator and their artefact, and artificial intelligence to personalise digital art for consumers of it – just as Spotify does for music and Netflix does for film.

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