Because good research needs good data

Report from the RCUK/POST Big Data exhibition

Martin Donnelly | 22 July 2014

On a very warm Tuesday 15 July, I attended the Research Councils UK (RCUK) Big Data exhibition at the House of Commons in London, organised by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST). The purpose of the event was to showcase flagship big data projects, which have been recipients of a total £189 million in RCUK funding, and it presented the DCC with a good opportunity to make new contacts among the funding councils and their data centres and projects, and to hear first hand about the UK government's plans for opening up the huge troves of data that their departments collect. The exhibition was also timed to coincide with the publication of two new POST case studies: "Big Data: An Overview" and "Big Data and Business".

Hosting the event was Adam Afriyie MP, a self-confessed "data nerd" who - aside from his political career - has spent the last 25 years working in the IT industry. Moving on from the proliferation and ubiquity of sensors (in, for example, our mobile phones), Afriyie said that big data would continue to be a major policy area for years to come, and cited issues of ownership as among the key challenges in this area.

Next up, Francis Maude MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office, spoke about how making data open takes MPs and civil servants out of their comfort zones. He often hears concerns voiced about security, legal issues and quality. But his view is that if data is published, the quality will shoot up pretty quickly. At heart the open data agenda is about transparency and citizen engagement. He acknowledges that the government has to overcome some reservations about trust; people are more likely to trust companies than government, which is a concern. A legislative framework is currently being prepared re. data sharing, presumably by the Cabinet Office, who are charged with 'wrangling' data from the other departments. Maude ended by identifying this as a big moment: the UK leads the world in open data, and if we get this right there is a big prize waiting.

The final speaker was Professor Rick Rylance, Chief Executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Chair of RCUK. Rylance spoke about the large investments made by the funding councils, and identified current challenges such as maintaining funding levels and changing the culture in the new knowledge economy. In addition to identifying the costs of action, we also need to take a fearless look at the opportunity costs of letting this opportunity pass us by.

The formal business concluded, I continued to mill around the exhibition and had an all-too-brief chat with someone whose name I failed to catch from the BBSRC Genome Analysis Centre, based at Norwich, seen here in conversation with BBSRC Chief Exec Jackie Hunter and Adam Afriyie.


(The reason I failed to catch her name was because our conversation was cut short prematurely by Mr Afriyie and Prof Hunter coming over and outranking me in importance. I did manage to learn that the wheat genome is, by one measure at least, three times bigger than its human equivalent. Every day's a school day…)

I had a very interesting conversation with Melanie Wright, Director of the ESRC funded Administrative Data Service, about the overlap and connections between research, government and administrative data. And finally, as the event was starting to wind up, I had an enjoyable chat with colleagues from the Met Office and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, where we bemoaned the science-centric language which too often dominates research data conversations, and the Archaeology Data Service, with whom I'd spent a couple of days in York the previous week.