Digital minister Matt Hancock calls for big data mining complex in south Wales

Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock has highlighted the potential of public sector data science expertise in Cardiff and Newport

Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock has called for the development of a cluster of big data expertise in south Wales.

Speaking at the launch of a new website for the Office for National Statistics (ONS), Hancock highlighted the concentration of public sector bodies in the field of big data near to the Newport base of the ONS. According to the Cabinet Office, south Wales is the fastest-growing tech cluster in the UK.

“We’re in the foothills of a data revolution,” said Hancock. “Data is no longer just a record of something that happened.

“It’s a mineable commodity from which we can extract value. It’s the unseen infrastructure of the digital economy, as important as any road or railway.

“It’s not just the ONS. In south Wales we have a big data cluster – DVLA, Companies House, ONS and the IPO [Intellectual Property Office]. So there is increasing potential for a south Wales big data cluster and to build the ecosystem – public, private and academic – that can deliver the capability we need.”

Hancock also announced a partnership between the ONS and UK charity tech incubator Alacrity, which aims to mentor graduates in Wales to develop their digital skills.

Digital hotbed

The minister highlighted the industrial heritage of the region and its potential to become a digital hotbed.

“Today, instead of coal, data is the most valuable raw material of our age. The way I see it, statistics are its refined product, and [the ONS] is the refinery,” he said.

“We can – and must – tap into that same spirit in the data revolution. That’s what it will take for us to turn our rich data assets into world-leading innovation.

Data culture call

In his role as minister for digital government, Hancock is championing the use of data to improve government and public services.

In one of his first speeches after his appointment to the post after the general election in 2015, he called for a “data culture” across government. And in October last year, he revealed plans to upgrade the government’s data infrastructure.

“We need to get better at standardising and maintaining our data. We need to move away from government’s reliance on bulk data sharing and create an economy of APIs,” he said at the time.

“And as with every other aspect of government, we need data services built around the needs of users, not the internal logic of Whitehall.”

Hancock said the government has so far released 23,000 datasets as part of its open data programme, covering £200bn of public spending. However, data experts have said that many of those data releases have been of such poor quality that public scrutiny is all but impossible.

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