The Covid pandemic has seen many make the shift online over the past five months. Our health, wealth and happiness managed by apps. As we signed up for local authority updates, grocery delivery services, online banking and video conferencing the big data market is expected to have grown by 12%. This should be making us all think hard about how our data is used, shared and protected; and what this can mean for the future of the North East economy.
As Parliament broke up for the summer, responsibility for government use of data transferred from DCMS (Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport) to the Cabinet Office. This may sound like a moot point of interest for technocrats, but for those of us who are believers in the incredible power of data and technology to improve public services it actually throws up some fundamentally profound questions about where we are heading.
In the last ten years the use of data has transformed the way the private sector operates bringing with it efficiency and productivity, yet also exploitative practices. Mismanagement and misuse of our data can have very real, very damaging effects to the lives of us all. At the heart of that A-level results scandal was an algorithm which basically applied last year’s results to this year’s students. The wrong data, used in the wrong way, bearing the wrong results. In my view this was a gross misuse of statistics and data.
I believe there is a special place in hell for those who use maths to hide rather than reveal the truth and the government’s algorithm risked hiding the achievements of a generation of Geordies. The algorithm expressly discriminated against ambitious state schools, such as those in Newcastle, that had worked hard to stretch their students to achieve the best and to increase participation of underrepresented groups in key subjects.
For years I have been calling for forward looking regulatory frameworks for new technologies such as data, algorithms and artificial intelligence. The Westminster government has refused, preferring to leave it to the market, even when the market(s) has so clearly been captured by the big beasts, the FAANGs – Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google. The argument is that regulation stifles innovation, but it is the anticompetitive practices of a handful of companies which are really stifling innovation and destroying our highstreets at the same time. Having worked in the sector as an engineer for twenty years before entering Parliament, six years with the regulator Ofcom, I know that the right kind of regulation can protect people and enable small companies to grow and flourish. And I believe that the North East is particularly well positioned to benefit from a robust regulatory environment.
Our digital economy is the fastest growing outside of London, with a digital GVA of £1 billion supporting 20,290 jobs. We’re home to FTSE 100 company Sage PLC, Ubisoft’s largest UK Games Studio and a new BBC Tech Hub. We also have the highest proportion of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) and computing students in the country, and the UK’s National Innovation Centre for Data. There are 15000 tech businesses across the North East contributing £600m to the local economy with over 26000 in digital employment. The North East LEP (Local Enterprise Partnership) recently launched a Digital for Growth strategy created with the aim of bringing together partners across the North East to maximise opportunities for growth and investment in the region. This promotes collaboration as the LEP works with partners to build on the region’s assets.
Our government can play a leadership role in delivering a proper Online Harms and Data regulatory framework and a joined up data strategy that provide great opportunities to regions like the North East and improve the provision of public services for us all.
That is why the Labour Party is eager to explore our digital future, and why we have launched a digital consultation. Data can be a platform for better services; citizen empowerment; and high skills, high pay jobs for Newcastle, or it can be another opportunity missed by a government that has a track record of failing to utilise the assets of the UK.