Legacy IT is a multibillion-pound problem for the UK government. Outdated systems can impact safety and efficiency, and may not represent a good use of taxpayers’ money. Increasingly, government departments are working to integrate data, adopting AI and other advanced technologies into their services and planning for the future.
Deepak Shukla, data and analytics lead for the UK public sector at Amazon Web Services (AWS), assesses the current state of the government’s use of data and AI, and what benefits its mass adoption over the coming years could mean for people getting services from the state.
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What’s your assessment of how the government currently uses data and other technologies?
The pandemic accelerated the government’s use of data, AI and technology. And what I’ve seen over the past few years is government departments focusing on adopting and migrating their current data sets on to the cloud. The government has been focused on harnessing the value which cloud technologies enable for them: cloud gives them economies of scale, reduction in costs, and other benefits. There are a few public sector organisations who want their data to be 100 per cent cloud-based by 2025 so they can start innovating at scale with data.
How can the government unlock value from data responsibly, and what “insights” could come from doing so?
There’s a huge opportunity to unlock value from the data the government holds. I’ve been speaking with a lot of senior leaders within various public sector organisations across the UK. Customers are asking us: “We’ve got a lot of data on the cloud through our migration efforts – what should I do with it? What can I do differently from when we were using legacy applications?” We are doing workshops with government agencies and the public sector to help them uncover the art of the possible from the uses of their data. For example, how to prevent fraud, plans for smart cities of the future, improve citizen experiences, as well as looking at how data can be used to provide smart healthcare.
What types of barriers do data silos pose to government?
Within every public sector organisation I’ve spoken to, the issue of data silos is consistent. What’s even more alarming is that we are still in the world of using spreadsheets, and siloed useful data sets are sitting on people’s laptops and desktops unconnected from a central frame. Breaking these silos will help reduce and optimise operating costs. And secondly, by joining the dots and breaking these data silos, some powerful use cases can be enabled, saving millions for the government through operational efficiencies. The value they can deliver for citizens is humongous.
What role can cloud technology play in supporting the government to modernise and improve services?
AWS has the most comprehensive portfolio of data, analytics and AI services, and our customers are adopting for innovation as a part of their journey to cloud. Given how important cross-government data sharing is to truly unlock the potential from data, we’ve launched two specific services to help mesh and derive value from data to help governments break silos.
The first service, Amazon DataZone helps, at a very high level, automate data cataloguing and governance, and helps our customers in creating a data exchange where the producers and consumers of data could share and subscribe to data sets of interest. It’s a huge step forward in helping break silos, and helps government and agencies create data products which can then be used by various agencies and consumers.
The second service is called AWS Clean Rooms, which enables data sharing without the need to share raw data. It allows agencies and departments to share data sets and intelligence which can then benefit other agencies and the other departments within government and public services. Cloud has a lot of capabilities; it makes processes very fast. Of course, it is important to set up governance structures and engage stakeholders and drive the cultural change which is needed to make this happen.
These services along with our modern data and analytics platform capabilities are helping public sector organisations become data-driven.
What specific citizen services could be improved (or introduced) by the widespread adoption of modern data and AI?
Adoption of modern data and AI will help improve citizen experience across their touchpoints with the government, and agencies working on behalf of the government. Citizens today expect amazon.com-like services from the government, providing best-in-class citizen experiences and value.
Some of the services which can be enabled and automated by the use of modern data and AI include, for example, automating birth and death registers. Instead of going through the normal lengthy processes, there is a potential to integrate healthcare and hospital data, through the local authority, to automate that process. Digitising and automating unemployment benefit claims is also possible and reduces the burden currently on authorities. Healthcare is another area that can be transformed by mass government adoption of modern data and AI capabilities moving from treatment of diseases to predicting and prevention of disease from happening. “Customer obsession” is at the centre of how AWS delivers services to its customers. And we expect “citizen obsession” to be at the centre of all the services that government delivers to its citizens.
How do government and vested stakeholders ensure that the increased use of modern data and AI is done ethically?
Ethics is really important. It’s a complex topic; delivering on responsible data and AI promise is a multidisciplinary challenge, requiring participants from various areas and competencies.
It needs technologists working with economists and lawyers, and also needs involvement from thinkers in the area of moral philosophy and social science. Because something that works for one section of the society sometimes doesn’t work for another. Therefore, it requires diverse sets of professionals to come together and set a framework. Our technology does help in this cause by detecting and mitigating bias and improving transparency.
[See also: Inside Europe’s fight for ethical AI]
What do you think of the government’s National Data Strategy – where is there room for improvement?
It was a great start from the government and a great recognition by political leaders around the role data could play in helping them run a more efficient and effective government.
There are three areas in which the government could further accelerate benefits from data. One is by better utilising the benefits that come from integrating data into the cloud. Having data on the cloud allows the government to do things faster. It allows for data and AI solutions built for a specific department, to be used by other state departments and other public sector bodies, for example. It helps them do more with less.
The second area is adopting new ways of working. As we modernise data and analytics platforms, we need to ensure that the data departments are adopting agile and DevOps practices as they build solutions on the modern platforms. I’ve spoken to customers who still use practices similar to what they were doing while operating on legacy software.
Third is engaging citizens more in the way we expect the government to use our data to deliver value. There is a need for a continuous feedback loop to ensure that the National Data Strategy is relevant for citizens’ needs and has continuous buy-in from the real stakeholders – the citizens of this country.
How different could the state’s functions look within five years as a result of data and AI?
In the next five years, what I see happening is the government enabling value from data analytics, to the benefit of citizens. I see a vision where the government will embed multiple AI-led services across citizens’ touchpoints with different government departments, which run on strong data foundations. This will help citizens to be in control of their data and have better insights to use government services.
Data will also help the government to enable smart cities, build robust defences against cybercrime, and track progress towards the use of sustainable technologies. All of this will help to improve the citizen experience.
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