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Big data means big money for the UK government as £2bn tender mooted

Central procurement team tickles the market with tantalising offer... but what for?

The UK government is putting the feelers out for a bundle of big data products and services in a move that could kick off £2bn in tendering.

Cabinet Office-run Crown Commercial Service (CCS), which sets up procurement on behalf of central government ministries and other public sector organisations, has published an early market engagement to test the suppliers' interest in a framework for so-called big data and analytics systems.

According to the prior information notice: "Big data and analytics is an emerging and evolving capability, with its prominence heightened by COVID. It is fast becoming recognised as business critical and a core business function, with many government departments now including chief data officers. The National Data Strategy and implementation of its missions reinforce the requirement to access and interrogate Government data more effectively to improve public services."

Launched by minister for culture, media and sport, Oliver Dowden, last December, the National Data Strategy talks of a "pro-growth and trusted data regime" that can transform the government's use of data and drive efficiency and so on.

"Data is a non-depletable resource in theory, but its use is limited by barriers to its access – such as when data is hoarded, when access rights are unclear or when organisations do not make good use of the data they already have. These barriers undermine the performance of public services and our economy, risking poorer outcomes for citizens. We will ensure that data can be leveraged to deliver new and innovative services, promote stronger competition, and better prices and choice for consumers and small businesses,” promised Dowden at the launch of the consultation.

Clearly, it is anticipated the benefits will be such that putting £2bn on the table for suppliers will be a worthwhile exercise as it could "offer a central route to market for all Big Data & Analytics requirements," the tender document continued.

"By offering a range of buying options and pricing mechanisms, it will enable competitive and agile procurements across a specialist pool of suppliers," it is said.

The procurement is split into two lots. The first is to "design, build and run" big data and analytics services including "advanced analytics and cognitive, data management and acquisition; data risking; platform services; reporting and dashboards; and search and discovery services."

Those of us who thought the concept of "cognitive computing" had been buried along with the marketing playbook for IBM's plan for Watson AI to resurrect the company's fortunes clearly have something to learn from the Whitehall commercial mandarins.

The second lot is for the stuff itself: Commercial Off The Shelf Software – or COTS, as the tender puts it.

Crown Commercial Services is looking for big data management; data mining; risking and science; machine learning and artificial intelligence; reporting and analytics; and search and data discovery, either on-prem, cloud, or hybrid infrastructure.

A contract notice form, which suppliers use to actually bid for the work, is expected to be available on 8 October 2021. The £2bn price reflects a four-year time scale.

Quite what the government means by "big data" is open to interpretation, the term having been coined partly to sell Hadoop-slingers' products a decade or so ago. Roughly speaking, it is addressing messy unstructured data not accommodated by traditional data warehousing systems – although all the data warehouse vendors will tell you they do unstructured data.

Nonetheless, departments have found it hard to move on from their "traditional" environments. Seven years after the DWP announced plans to move off its Oracle data warehouse to Hadoop-based environments, it is still running Cloudera, AWS Redshift and, of course, Oracle.

Whether making £2bn available will help remove technical and cultural intransigence is a moot point. ®

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