As I have said in many of my blog posts, one of the best things about working as a DigiChamp here at Southampton is the continued invitations to some of the most high profile events happening at the University. This week again has been no exception. The pioneering nature of our Web Science Institute, and the dedication and hard-work of all those within it led to Director of Data Projects in the Communities and Local Government arm of the Civil Service, Paul Maltby, visiting Southampton to give a talk on transformative data.
I of course look forward to all talks I am lucky enough to attend, but this one was particularly interesting for me, as the Government Data service (an area Paul has a massive deal of experience and knowledge in) is something that really interests me career-wise. The only challenge? Remembering to tweet during the talk and not just focus on what Paul was saying! Hopefully from the recording, and our Storify, you’ll think that Tom Rowledge and I did an okay job, and I’ll do my best to summarise the talk here.
After a brief period before the talk looking at posters from students within the institute, everyone was in a suitably “web-sciencey” mood, and Paul’s rapid opening worked well with this. He explained his role, and why he believes that Open Data, and in particular Open Government Data, has a huge variety of uses and a massive amount of power. In his work, Paul explained that he is now looking at the use of data in Communities and Local Government, learning from the past, dealing with the challenges faced in the present, and looking to the future. Paul explained how data analysis has now moved beyond the maths, and it is now instead ranked alongside digital technology as part of a new paradigm of reform. He continually made the audience aware of the challenges (or made the audience aware that he was aware…if that’s not too messy!) faced by trying to create a truly-open government, and how important it is to strike a balance between openness and privacy. He looked at the work of innovative start-ups, what needs to change in data infrastructure and how data could be the key to the fundamentally broken housing market, before turning to the future. Paul talked about Artificial Intelligence here, emphasizing his personal belief that it is becoming more and more important and that the government had to be aware of this. He interestingly proposed the short-term problems were comparatively easy to deal with, but confessed in the long-term that no one could really be sure of what was coming.
As with any talk, some of the most interesting moments emerged during the question and answer session. To some degree, the audience required time to wrap their heads around exactly what Paul was working towards, as the end goal did seem rather ambiguous, but this did not stop the questions from flowing. Dame Wendy Hall focused on the personal data element of Open Government Data, others on the legal aspect of managing anonymised data, and it was even proposed that a specific new blockchain could be used to help managed concerns around data and its use.
I personally thought Paul handled the questions well, but I did come away with the sense that there is still plenty more work to be done, and plenty more questions to be asked. For me, the field Paul works in is massively interesting, and will also undergo perhaps the most complete transformation of any as the amount of data we produce only increases. It is great to see people like Paul, passionate and willing to share their work, as I believe transparency of process and of thought is the best tool for ensuring this government data is managed well and put to the good use it can be. Thanks for coming Paul, and thanks to you all for reading!