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The importance of governance in today’s data driven world

Blog • • Lisa Davis

On 25 January 2018, the Prime Minister Theresa May reaffirmed her commitment to creating a world-first Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. The centre aims to enable safe, ethical and ground-breaking innovation in data-driven technologies. Speaking at the World Economic Forum, the PM offered more details about the £9 million centre, suggesting that it would help turn the UK into a hotspot for technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning.

World Economic Forum

World Economic Forum” by Jolanda Flubacher is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The evolving impact of data on our lives

The PM noted that “the UK already benefits from a world-class regulatory regime and the centre will build on this by making sure we understand and respond to the rapidly evolving ways in which data is impacting our lives”.

The establishment of the Centre is in part a direct response to a recommendation made by the British Academy and Royal Society working group on Data Governance and laid out in the Data management and use: Governance in the 21st century.

The amount of data generated from the world around us has reached levels that were previously unimaginable. Data-enabled technologies promise benefits, from improving healthcare and treatment discovery, to better managing critical infrastructure such as transport and energy.

“A set of high-level principles is needed to visibly shape all forms of data governance and ensure trustworthiness and trust in the management and use of data as a whole.”

Promoting human flourishing

These developments can be hugely positive. But they also give rise to new and sometimes unfamiliar ethical and economic challenges. The task of any new body is to harness technology for the common good: to promote its benefits, support innovation, and mitigate the risks so it works for all. The Data Governance working group believe that a set of high-level principles is needed to visibly shape all forms of data governance and ensure trustworthiness and trust in the management and use of data as a whole. The overarching principle for systems of data governance should promote human flourishing.

People on a street

This framing includes concepts such as wellbeing and the need for individuals and communities to thrive, but it is deliberately broad. At moments of contention, the principle should serve to reflect the fundamental tenet that society does not serve data but that data should be used to serve human communities.

Our priorities for the new Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation

The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation will have a bold and ambitious remit but we are glad to see that the Government is moving quickly setting up the centre immediately in an interim form. The interim Centre will start work on key issues straight away and its findings will be used to inform the final design and work programme of the permanent centre. The Academy stands ready to respond to the public consultation on the permanent centre once it is launched.

We will be looking to ensure that the centre facilitates meaningful public consultation on matters that, ultimately, impact on people and their privacy. These consultations will help define the public and societal benefit in the use of data and ensure it benefits communities and not just a few individuals. We would like the work with the centre to adopt and promote the principles we have developed, which we believe should underpin data management and use.  

My main worry is that this will descend into one of many talking shops, producing a series of one-off reports looking at single abstract issues. However, if we get this right, there is a significant opportunity for the UK to lead on this issue and be at the forefront of innovation in artificial intelligence and data-driven technology.

Listen to our latest podcast about big data and AI which explores the human side to a robot world. 


Lisa Davis is the Head of Policy at the British Academy.

Find out more about our work on Data Governance

Blog • • Lisa Davis