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Alan Turing Institute and OII: Summit on Data Science for Government and Policy Making

Published on
31 May 2016
Written by
Helen Margetts

The benefits of big data and data science for the private sector are well recognised. So far, considerably less attention has been paid to the power and potential of the growing field of data science for policy-making and public services. On Monday 14th March 2016 the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) and the Alan Turing Institute (ATI) hosted a Summit on Data Science for Government and Policy Making, funded by the EPSRC. Leading policy makers, data scientists and academics came together to discuss how the ATI and government could work together to develop data science for the public good. The convenors of the Summit, Professors Helen Margetts (OII) and Tom Melham (Computer Science), report on the day’s proceedings.

The summit on Data Science for Government and Policy-Making aimed to understand how government can make better use of big data and the ATI. From left: Tom Melham, Helen Margetts, Mark Walport, Paul Maltby, Patrick Wolfe, Luciano Floridi.

The Alan Turing Institute will build on the UK’s existing academic strengths in the analysis and application of big data and algorithm research to place the UK at the forefront of world-wide research in data science. The University of Oxford is one of five university partners, and the OII is the only partnering department in the social sciences. The aim of the summit on Data Science for Government and Policy-Making was to understand how government can make better use of big data and the ATI – with the academic partners in listening mode.

We hoped that the participants would bring forward their own stories, hopes and fears regarding data science for the public good. Crucially, we wanted to work out a roadmap for how different stakeholders can work together on the distinct challenges facing government, as opposed to commercial organisations. At the same time, data science research and development has much to gain from the policy-making community. Some of the things that government does – collect tax from the whole population, or give money away at scale, or possess the legitimate use of force – it does by virtue of being government. So the sources of data and some of the data science challenges that public agencies face are unique and tackling them could put government working with researchers at the forefront of data science innovation.

During the Summit a range of stakeholders provided insight from their distinctive perspectives; the Government Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Mark Walport; Deputy Director of the ATI, Patrick Wolfe; the National Statistician and Director of ONS, John Pullinger; Director of Data at the Government Digital Service, Paul Maltby. Representatives of frontline departments recounted how algorithmic decision-making is already bringing predictive capacity into operational business, improving efficiency and effectiveness.

Discussion revolved around the challenges of how to build core capability in data science across government, rather than outsourcing it (as happened in an earlier era with information technology) or confining it to a data science profession. Some delegates talked of being in the ‘foothills’ of data science. The scale, heterogeneity and complexity of some government departments currently works against data science innovation, particularly when larger departments can operate thousands of databases, creating legacy barriers to interoperability. Out-dated policies can work against data science methodologies. Attendees repeatedly voiced concerns about sharing data across government departments, in some case because of limitations of legal protections; in others because people were unsure what they can and cannot do.

The potential power of data science creates an urgent need for discussion of ethics. Delegates and speakers repeatedly affirmed the importance of an ethical framework and for thought leadership in this area, so that ethics is ‘part of the science’. The clear emergent option was a national Council for Data Ethics (along the lines of the Nuffield Council for Bioethics) convened by the ATI, as recommended in the recent Science and Technology parliamentary committee report The big data dilemma and the government response. Luciano Floridi (OII’s professor of the philosophy and ethics of information) warned that we cannot reduce ethics to mere compliance. Ethical problems do not normally have a single straightforward ‘right’ answer, but require dialogue and thought and extend far beyond individual privacy. There was consensus that the UK has the potential to provide global thought leadership and to set the standard for the rest of Europe. It was announced during the Summit that an ATI Working Group on the Ethics of Data Science has been confirmed, to take these issues forward.

So what happens now?

Throughout the Summit there were calls from policy makers for more data science leadership. We hope that the ATI will be instrumental in providing this, and an interface both between government, business and academia, and between separate Government departments. This Summit showed just how much real demand – and enthusiasm – there is from policy makers to develop data science methods and harness the power of big data. No-one wants to repeat with data science the history of government information technology – where in the 1950s and 60s, government led the way as an innovator, but has struggled to maintain this position ever since. We hope that the ATI can act to prevent the same fate for data science and provide both thought leadership and the ‘time and space’ (as one delegate put it) for policy-makers to work with the Institute to develop data science for the public good.

So since the Summit, in response to the clear need that emerged from the discussion and other conversations with stakeholders, the ATI has been designing a Policy Innovation Unit, with the aim of working with government departments on ‘data science for public good’ issues. Activities could include:

  • Secondments at the ATI for data scientists from government
  • Short term projects in government departments for ATI doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers
  • Developing ATI as an accredited data facility for public data, as suggested in the current Cabinet Office consultation on better use of data in government
  • ATI pilot policy projects, using government data
  • Policy symposia focused on specific issues and challenges
  • ATI representation in regular meetings at the senior level (for example, between Chief Scientific Advisors, the Cabinet Office, the Office for National Statistics, GO-Science).
  • ATI acting as an interface between public and private sectors, for example through knowledge exchange and the exploitation of non-government sources as well as government data
  • ATI offering a trusted space, time and a forum for formulating questions and developing solutions that tackle public policy problems and push forward the frontiers of data science
  • ATI as a source of cross-fertilization of expertise between departments
  • Reviewing the data science landscape in a department or agency, identifying feedback loops – or lack thereof – between policy-makers, analysts, front-line staff and identifying possibilities for an ‘intelligent centre’ model through strategic development of expertise.

The Summit, and a series of Whitehall Roundtables convened by GO-Science which led up to it, have initiated a nascent network of stakeholders across government, which we aim to build on and develop over the coming months. If you are interested in being part of this, please do be in touch with us

Helen Margetts, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford (

Tom Melham, Department of Computer Science, University of Oxford

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