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UK needs a 'digital twin' to keep track of its data assets – report

... and companies need to share their info nicely

The UK needs high-quality, standardised and more open data to improve its national infrastructure – and companies need to get used to sharing, a report has said.

The National Infrastructure Commission, chaired by Andrew Adonis, was tasked with assessing the data the UK holds and how it can make better use of it.

The commission is clearly sold on the potential of large-scale data collection – and the various tech buzzwords, like Internet of Things and artificial intelligence, that come with it.

Its Data for the Public Good report (PDF) reels off lists benefits. These include cutting train delays and traffic jams through better planned maintenance and repairs through sensor networks, and increasing competition between telcos by sharing data on signal and connection speeds.

Long-term data collection will inform how infrastructure is built, managed and decommissioned, while real-time data will improve day-to-day operations, the report said.

"Data is now as much a critical component of national infrastructure as steel, bricks and mortar," it claims.

Thankfully, though, the tired and overused adage that "data is the new oil" doesn't appear once.

Instead, the commission focuses on the idea that – if the UK's data is to be useful – it must be treated as a fundamental resource that will only provide value if it is properly managed and maintained.

"Data is part of infrastructure and needs maintenance in the same way that physical infrastructure needs maintenance. Data needs to be updated, housed and made secure," the report said.

It goes on to quote an upcoming research paper from Loughborough professor Peter Kawalek:

As data generates the behaviour of infrastructure, it can be said that data is in a sense also a hard infrastructure, and that it needs to be maintained and managed through a formal approach, analogous to the way that physical infrastructure itself is managed.

However, data also needs to be supported by physical infrastructure, the report said, repeatedly emphasising that this would be much harder without high-speed, high-capacity mobile and broadband networks (another topic on which the commission has opined).

And, the commission argued, simply having the data isn't enough – it needs to be shared across the public and private sectors to be properly useful, for instance by linking information from various networks of sensors.

It acknowledged that this does happen to some extent, but "none of this is currently done in a coordinated way; use of new technologies to improve infrastructure productivity is piecemeal and not as collaborative as it could be".

Rather, there should be a "digital twin" created of the UK, which will mirror the nation's infrastructure so it would be used to model planning and make better informed decisions about future planning decisions.

As part of this, the commission sets out a rather lofty aim: that companies make as much non-personal data they hold on infrastructure networks openly (and securely) available.

The group does at least admit that the companies running such infrastructure are famously unwilling to collaborate, but goes on to say that the industry "needs to adapt to the new world of big data and data analytics, and work together".

It suggested that the Infrastructure Client Group leads "industry engagement" to create a culture shift from "closed, siloed thinking" to an "open, transparent culture of effective data management".

Meanwhile, regulators "should ensure that operators take responsibility for collating this data, verifying its quality, making it available to the appropriate parties and using it in a safe and ethical way".

The group added that it would look at the "regulatory challenges to data sharing" as part of its ongoing work.

The commission said that "doing nothing is a big risk", warning that without coordination and a push from government, the benefits of big data will be missed.

"Progress towards greater innovation is being hindered by a closed attitude to data across the infrastructure sector, and by an array of regulatory, commercial and cultural barriers," it said.

"The infrastructure sectors will not coordinate the sharing of data and enable innovation without direction from government and regulators to ensure that both private and public benefits are fully realised." ®


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