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UK health minister confirms data platform worth £480m will replicate Palantir dashboards

Suppliers competing for lucrative prize will rely on 'interoperability' of existing work from US spy-tech firm

The UK's health service has confirmed it will require winners of the procurement for a Federated Data Platform (FDP) to migrate existing dashboards from the current platform by US spy-tech firm Palantir.

Palantir, which made its name creating data analytics technologies for the CIA and US immigration agency ICE, is said to be making the competition a "must-win."

The company got a foothold in the National Health Service (NHS) during the pandemic, when it was one of a number of suppliers to build a "data store" to detail information about the spread of COVID-19 and its impact on the NHS, one of the world's largest healthcare providers.

It won a £23 million ($28 million) contract without competition to extend its work on the platform, built on its Foundry product. The deal, which was extended without competition in January, was subject to threats of judicial review, after which the NHS agreed not to extend it without public consultation.

Also in January, NHS England and NHS Improvement launched the competition for a new £480 million ($580 million) data platform which promised to provide "the connectivity [which] will enable us to rapidly scale and share innovative solutions that directly addresses the challenges most pressing for the NHS," according to an NHS England blog.

Potential suppliers of the new system have questioned whether Palantir has an unfair advantage in the competition given it built the existing dashboards and data platform the NHS expects to migrate to the FDP.

In November 2022, supplier documents showed that existing services based on the NHS implementation of Foundry were "within the scope of the requirement for the Federated Data Platform and would be transitioned to the FDP as part of its implementation in place of the existing platform."

In response to a Parliamentary question late last week, Nicholas Francis Markham, member of the House of Lords and under-secretary of state in the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), confirmed existing dashboards within Foundry would be interoperable.

"Over the coming months, an assessment will be undertaken to determine which dashboards will be migrated to the new Federated Data Platform and which will be decommissioned. The format of the specifications for these dashboards will be developed as part of the planned transition activities of the programme," he said.

The precise meaning of that statement can be open to technical interpretation. It is possible the technology in Foundry, a proprietary system, may be interoperable without necessarily offering a level playing field to alternative suppliers hoping to replicate its dashboards.

Last week, NHS Digital, a wing of the DHSC responsible for digital strategy in the health service, finally bit the dust. It officially merged with NHS England, completing a move first announced by then health secretary Sajid Javid in 2021.

Merging the three bodies responsible for tech health strategy and delivery – NHS England, NHSX and NHS Digital – would create a "single organisation to lead the NHS in England to deliver high-quality services for all," according to NHS England.

"The move brings the NHS' national data and technology expertise into one organisation, creating a closer link between the collection and analysis of data to help drive improvement to patient outcomes," NHS England said.

But others have expressed concern that it could lead to a lack of legal oversight of patient privacy, given the specific legal powers NHS Digital was given.

Writing in the British Medical Journal last year, former NHS Digital chairman Kingsley Manning, said: "Doing away with an independent statutory body in NHS Digital, charged with defending patient rights, is itself, unfortunate. But handing that body and its powers to NHS England, is a grave error."

NHS England said the merged operation would "include all existing protections for data" and sees "NHS England become the custodian of national health and social care datasets and the single executive non-departmental public body with responsibility for digital technology, data and health service delivery in the NHS." ®

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