The Strategy sets out how the Department intends to work with organisations in the transport sector to help overcome the current barriers to data sharing and move towards an "open by default" approach to data – all with the long term view to ensuring that data plays a key role in the improvement of transport (which in turn will support approaches to levelling up and decarbonisation among other things).
The key to the Strategy succeeding is public-private partnerships, with an acknowledgment that the private sector is often best placed to formulate and deliver innovative approaches to data use.
This brief article examines the objectives of the Strategy, how those are proposed to be achieved, and the next steps.
As in many other sectors of the economy, the potential associated with data in infrastructure assets is becoming more widely recognised. With infrastructure increasingly being seen by key stakeholders, including the Global Infrastructure Hub and the G20, as a potential way out of many of the key issues facing governments and economies alike, decision-makers are on the lookout for ways to improve existing assets and best in class approaches to developing new ones. Data is at the heart of that assessment—whether it is data-driven analysis of how, where, and when to deploy assets, or data generated by the assets themselves improving their efficiency and helping to meet their objectives.
The Department's objectives are no more modest. As stated in the Strategy, effective use and sharing of data will help the Department to meet its "strategic objectives of growing and levelling up the economy, decarbonising the transport system, improving transport for the user, and increasing our global impact". Data, it would seem, has a lot of work to do.
The key message in the Strategy is that the more data is shared and different data sets combined, the more value to be unlocked in a constantly growing network. The Strategy references a 2017 report by Deloitte which showed how, at the time of writing, there were over 600 apps powered by more than 80 data feeds published by Transport for London, being used by 42% of Londoners. This apparently resulted in an increased supply chain with over 200 jobs being created directly and over 700 indirectly, and an estimated £14m per annum Gross Value Added.
The Strategy envisages multiple long-term benefits that may derive from a move to open data, including:
- the removal of data monopolies and unnecessary contractual barriers to progress;
- improvements to the functioning of interoperable systems, such as integrated energy systems for EV charging (which would in turn enable low-emission travel);
- the vision for smart places and user-friendly multi-modal transport will benefit from increased connectivity and communication between systems;
- the Government's Future of Mobility: Urban Strategy, which describes how the movement of goods and people are transformed by data and connectivity (together with automation), is premised on the effective use of location data;
- open data giving a valuable understanding of the impact of environmental policies and transport behaviour, which can help "nudge" behaviours for more active travel and decarbonisation; and
- local authorities being able to utilise their data more efficiently.
The Strategy also expressly recognises the value of the data economy; it highlights the sector's rapid growth and notes that the data economy made up approximately 4% of the UK's GDP in 2020. The release of open data by Transport for London alone is generating up to £130m of annual economic benefits for Londoners, tourists and TfL as a body.
Barriers to Data Sharing
The Strategy reflects that there is no single reason why data sharing is not currently taking place as effectively as it could be. Instead, it highlights seven key barriers to effective data sharing. These barriers vary by geography and sector, but all need to be overcome in order to allow increased widespread data sharing and innovation:
- Data discoverability – not all information is currently stored digitally, and data can be difficult to access when held in fragmented formats.
- Risk concerns – data sharing prompts concerns of privacy and data security, for example that companies may exploit data for their own purposes rather than to benefit consumers.
- Contractual barriers – whilst the Strategy illustrates the importance of data, it has historically not been considered valuable, so current contracts often do not provide for ownership, exploitation, or even collection of potentially useful data. Future contracts must recognise that data is an asset (rather than just a liability), and address it accordingly.
- Lack of incentives – many businesses have traditionally not realised the value that can be generated by investment in data, and it has historically been difficult to make a business case for innovation.
- Skills gaps – the transport sector is impacted by skills gaps in areas including data privacy and data engineering. Data literacy as a whole is inconsistent across the sector and specialist staff are small in number.
- Data format and quality – data needs to be good quality and in a recognised standard form to increase opportunity. This is not always the case.
- Lack of leadership – a consistent message is the desire for greater leadership from the Government on multiple data issues, from privacy to standards and an overall vision.
Five Themes and a Mission
The Strategy reinforces the need for an 'open by default' approach to unlocking the value of data and addressing existing barriers to effective data sharing and use. The predominant focus is for the Department to enable, rather than directly deliver, innovation and they have identified five themes (each with several key actions) to provide a clear mission statement:
- Sharing, Discovery, and Access: by creating a Transport Data Catalogue, challenging the availability of data and exploring security controls on data sharing, data can be optimised to benefit transport users.
- Data Standards and Quality: the Department aims to regulate and communicate standards by creating a Transport Data Standards Panel, developing a data standards catalogue and improving data quality. This will enable interoperability to link different data-sets across different sub-sectors, from transport to energy.
- Skills, Culture, and Leadership: barriers caused by lack of data literacy and core skills will be addressed by focussing on expert groups, which will identify key actions together with a programme of innovation events that can support upskilling and data skills in targeted areas.
- User needs and Communication: the Department identifies that user engagement is key to realise the mission and will develop the wider transport data community and run quarterly roundtables to encourage advisory and challenge functionality.
- Governance, Protection, and Ethics: public trust and secure sharing are essential. The Department will explore setting up a Data Ethics Panel and carrying out an Annual Data Strategy to assess progress.
Although the above actions reflect a short-term approach only, they are intended to represent the first step in enabling a clear roadmap for the development of long-term actions.
The Strategy emphasises that it is a "live document" which will be refreshed annually, so it will be interesting to track future developments. The Department will use multiple indicators such as metrics on Find Transport Data usage, user feedback and action delivery to assess progress and identify new priorities.
Individuals and organisations are encouraged to get involved in the development and use of transport data by contacting the Department at firstname.lastname@example.org, or for more those specifically interested in data science in the transport sector, the Department runs event series on this subject. To join the mailing list, email email@example.com.
For more specific working groups, the Strategy signposts to different organisations such as:
- Local Authorities and industry/SMEs are recommended to engage with Traffic Technology Forum who have a dedicated working group looking specifically at traffic data - https://ttf.uk.net/category/working-groups/;
- SMEs who are looking to turn proof of concept to commercial reality can access support for transport sector data-driven innovations in the Connected Places Catapult SME network - https://cp.catapult.org.uk/opportunity/join-the-sme-network/;
- In terms of academic institutions, the Department is working with the Turing Institute and the Urban Observatory programme; and
- Courses and training on different data topics can be found on this ODI page - https://learning.theodi.org/.
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