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Government data talk to the fore at London Tech Week

Data figured prominently in the unfolding of the government’s digital strategy at the start of London Tech Week, with privacy-enhancing technologies and anonymous health data sharing notable

London Tech Week opened yesterday with government ministers talking data and digital.

Julia Lopez, minister of state for media, data and digital infrastructure, Chris Philp, parliamentary under-secretary of state for tech and the digital economy, and Sajid Javid, secretary of state for health and social care, all descanted on data and digital to back up the government’s new digital strategy, on the first day of the London Tech Week conference at the QEII centre in Westminster.

They followed in the train of chancellor Rishi Sunak, who opened the conference, officially announcing the digital strategy, and Nadine Dorries, secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, who announced a new Digital Skills Council.

Philp told attendees: “Developed economies face long-term challenges around growth, productivity and real wages. Just as Thatcher and Reagan unleashed the power of the market to transform our economy in the 1980s, unleashing the power of the tech sector will transform our economy today.”   

Striking a Brexiteer attitude, he went on: “In the last five years, the UK has raced ahead of Europe to become a global tech leader, and now we’re setting the course for the future. The digital strategy is the roadmap we will follow to strengthen our global position as a science and technology superpower. Our future prosperity and place in the world depends on it.”

Philp said the strategy would “usher in a new age of growth, raise productivity, provide better paid jobs and, by producing more for less, tame inflationary demons”, describing technology as “the force that will be the animating spirit of our economy – entrepreneurial, restless and dynamic”.

He continued: “The UK digital economy is in incredibly good health. In the first five months of this year, UK tech companies attracted more venture capital funding than in the whole of 2021. £12.5bn, that’s half a billion per week. That’s twice as much as France, three times as much as Germany. We beat China. President Macron will be choking on his croissants this morning. Only the US achieved better figures, and we are running fast to catch them too.

“The UK is a unicorn factory. One was born every 12 days in 2021. We have more unicorns than France and Germany combined.”

Philp also referred to hints the chancellor had made in his morning address to the conference about the Autumn Budget featuring “major R&D tax credits to make private sector investment in the UK tech sector even more attractive”.

Privacy-enhancing technologies

The “unlocking the power of data” section of the UK digital strategy policy paper published on 13 June says the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) intends to “bring forward primary legislation to reform the UK’s data protection laws by simplifying some parts of the UK General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), ensuring high standards of data protection” and lays out the government’s view “that our reform of UK legislation on personal data is compatible with maintaining the free flow of personal data from Europe”.

The paper also confirms a “joint UK/US prize challenge to accelerate the development of privacy-enhancing technologies (PETs), which can enable data to be analysed and shared without compromising on the privacy or trust of data subjects”.

Lopez drew attention to this British and American initiative, announced on 8 December 2021, on another panel at the London Tech Week conference. “The pandemic was very important, proving the importance of data with the daily updates,” she said. “But at the same time, it created lots of suspicion and concern among people about how data can be used by governments. We had to place controls on how people lived their lives for a period. So that’s created a counter-challenge. How do you build trust in how governments want to use your data, empowering rather than controlling? It can be done, but it is a challenge.”

She said the UK and US privacy-enhancing technologies challenge, which is aimed at combating financial fraud, among other matters, is an example of how it can be done. When the initiative was announced in December 2021, the White House and the UK government said: “PETs are already being used to tackle a range of societal challenges – from financial crime to Covid-19 – to enable data use in ways that preserve privacy. The prize challenge will build on the extensive innovation in these technologies that is already taking place in both countries across academia, industry and government. The joint effort will reinforce the democratic principles enshrined in the New Atlantic Charter.”

Anonymous data sharing

Javid told attendees at the HealthTech stream at the event that anonymous data sharing would be vital to ensuring the UK’s health and data sector is more like Netflix than Blockbuster. “Less than a decade ago, Blockbuster had more than 9,000 stores across the globe. Now it has just one. Meanwhile, Netflix, which had been sending DVDs in the mail, is one of the world’s most successful media companies,” he said.

“If health and care does not keep pace with the rapidly changing world around us, it’ll be stuck in the slow lane and we won’t be able to deliver the care that people deserve and expect.”

Digital, he said, is “not an add-on and has to be driven from the top”. He declared a target of 90% coverage of electronic patient records by the end of 2022.

But Javid’s main emphasis was on what he called a new data strategy for health and care, under the strapline “Data saves lives”.

He described this as a “landmark document” that builds on the NHS being perceived to be a trustworthy custodian of data, as shown by organisations like the Open Data Institute. Nevertheless, he said, there has to be a “fundamental shift in culture towards [health professionals having] a duty to safely use data and to make that “as clear and as simple as possible” for the public.

“Safe access to data has to be the default,” said Javid. “We will create a new legal power that will mean health and care organisations can require anonymous information from each other. This will help us to smash silos and make sure anonymous information can be shared more easily across the system.”

The aim of the health data strategy about which he was speaking aims, it seems, to give NHS patients greater access to their GP data records through the NHS App, and to give them more power over how their personally identifiable information (PII) is used by the health service.

The “Data saves lives” slogan came out of the government response to the Covid-19 health pandemic during the tenure of Matt Hancock as health secretary. The health data strategy it encapsulates was announced in June 2021, and the new document is described as the final version of it. It only applies to England.

The event was opened by Sunak with an announcement of the review into the future of advanced computing. “One technology that will become ever more critical in the years to come is advanced computing,” he said. “The extraordinary power of the next generation of supercomputers will change every aspect of our economy, so I’m delighted to announce today a new review into the future of computing. Led by Professor Zoubin Ghahramani, AI [artificial intelligence] professor at the University of Cambridge and director of Google Brains, it will report later this year with new recommendations on how we can deliver the UK’s computing needs, not just this year, but for decades to come.”

Dorries also spoke at the event. “Everyone I spoke to last year told me that a skills deficit in the UK tech sector was the number one issue of concern,” she said. “The new UK digital strategy will bring tech leaders together in a new Digital Skills Council to help to continue to work on and to plug that skills gap. 

“The digital strategy will capitalise on the freedoms we now have to set our own standards and regulations. And we intend to be as pro-innovation and pro-growth as we possibly can be when it comes to data reform and artificial intelligence. Essentially, this is the roadmap the entire government will follow in the next decade to reinforce our status as a global tech superpower.”

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