Toward treating ‘Data as Infrastructure’

There’s immediate actions for all levels of government to unlock more value from Data Infrastructure. This blog considers the argument for treating Data just like any other large infrastructure asset, such as road and rail networks. It summarises the key data governance strategies from a ‘Data as Infrastructure’ paper published by National Infrastructure Commission in the same week that a NIC report highlighted that Data contributes around £50bn to the UK economy a year.

A ‘Data as Infrastructure’ Conceptual Framework, which summaries the key points made in Dr. Kawalek’s paper for the NIC about Drivers and Governance Modes for Data Infrastructure


Data is Infrastructure. Catchy, right? But what exactly does that mean?

On the 14th December 2017, the National Infrastructure Commission clarified that that “Data is part of infrastructure and needs maintenance in the same way that physical infrastructure needs maintenance” in it’s Data for the Public Good report. It also said that Data contributes £50bn to the UK economy each year.

In the same week, the NIC published Dr. Peter Kawalek’s paper titled ‘Data as Infrastructure’, which outlines a conceptual framework intended to guide government in its strategic decisions for planning and delivering Data Infrastructure. This is based on the premise that ‘Data’ is now a type of Infrastructure, like Road, Rail, or Energy, and has become such an important part of the national infrastructure that it “must be managed for the best effect”.

Both reports are predicated on the growing consensus that we’ve hit a tipping point. Our national interest, individual well-being and way of living is hugely reliant on data because of the advanced developments in collection, storage, use, and sharing over the past 20-years and its gradual integration into our lives through the products and services it enhances.

Data contributes significantly to national income and productivity. It’s become so important that we need a framework and appropriate interventions at all levels of government to ensure that Data Infrastructure is planned, delivered and managed appropriately.

A road or rail network transports people and goods efficiently from one place to another. A data network transports information efficiently between one user and another.

So, if data should be classified as a ‘public good’ and be shepherded in the national interest does that mean that all data should be opened up? No. But it does mean that government should play a role in stimulating data markets, in addition to the Open Data movement. For more views from the Open Data Institute, you can read their blog here.

The ‘Data as Infrastructure Conceptual Framework’ proposed by Dr. Kawalek is fairly simple and designed to guide all levels of government in how it strategically responds to treating Data as Infrastructure. It suggests there are Data Technology Drivers and Data Governance Strategies that Government may adopt in response.

Data Technology Drivers

There are the 4-Drivers for classing Data as Infrastructure and in essence their in response to the Data Selection Problem, Data Prediction Problem, Data Verification Problem and Data Replication Problem.

Technological Drivers which mean that Government Strategies are required for Data Infrastructure outlined in Dr. Kawalek’s paper



Data Governance Strategies for Government

Government at any level (National, Regional, Local) can adopt one of four roles when it comes to Data Governance. In fact, they should adopt a blend of the four depending on what they hope to achieve in a given situation.

Data Strategies that National, Regional, and Local Government can choose to deploy depending on how it considers data and the outcomes it wants to achieve reflected by Dr. Kawalek


“A Data governance strategy gains value when it is placed in the broader national context and when it is aligned with the overall vision of the nation.

–  Data as Infrastructure, Dr. Peter Kawalek

The Four Data Governance Strategies highlighted in the report are the most critical for us to focus on. They are:

  1. Government as a Provider — ‘Government adopts a strategy focused on the provision of the data it holds to others by pursuing the “Open” or “Shared (restricted)” release of its data so that others can generate value from that data.’
  2. Government as an Enabler — ‘Government adopts a strategy that enables the creation of public and private data marketplaces. This strategy recognises that much data is in the private control of the private sector and third sector. Government designs a data marketplace so that there is an exchange among suppliers and users, and the optimal value of the data is realised by participants in the market. Government controls access and use of data.’
  3. Government as a Lab — ‘Government seeks to develop a network of different data providers and users through a specific initiative. It may create a closed or semi-closed environment for data sharing. A lab allows government to bring data providers together in order to answer specific policy issues or questions and is pro-actively managed through formal governance. This strategy requires high government involvement in Design and Maintenance of the lab. It requires a high-level of actively managed collaborations and partnerships between public sector, private sectors and citizens.’
  4. Government as a Smart System — ‘Government develops highly automated and intelligent closed systems that support both the real-time working of the environment and an ongoing process of analysis/learning about the optimisation of this environment. The concept applies whenever the Internet of Things and other monitoring systems are brought into the whole-scale and real-time management of a facility or a geographical area. Given that such a system is controlled by or on behalf of the government, it can be described as ‘Government as a Smart System.’
    Smart systems will learn through Artificial Intelligence about any issue within their scope, e.g. the best movement of emergency vehicles, crop interventions, patterns of lighting or refuse collection. 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. This kind of system is necessarily closed for the reason that data quality is key, but the system will also support learning and can be integrated into an overall governance framework alongside other roles of government.’

How might these Data Governance Strategies be implemented by stakeholder groups in the UK?

  1. National Governmentshould be consulting on policy and legislation changes that might encourage open data, data sharing and data markets, this may include incentives and penalties for public and private organisations on publishing or withholding their data
  2. Departments, such as DCLG, should be encouraging City-Regions to develop Data Strategies in their region focused on unlocking the value to be gained from enhanced data infrastructure and ensuring that Local Government have frameworks for data agreements and procurements, where Data is a large factor
  3. Combined Authoritiesshould be ensuring that they have Data Infrastructure Strategies across their City-Regions. They should be the responsible authority for strategic decisions concerning ‘Data Labs’ and ‘Smart Systems’ across the Local Authorities they represent
  4. Local Governmentshould ensure that their data is stored and published in standard formats and that they procure solutions from IT vendors that give them more ease, control and automation on publishing and sharing data
  5. Software Developersshould be ensuring that their products are upgraded to incorporate best practices in data publishing. They should utilise APIs, and incorporate ‘API Gateway’ technology, which would allow organisations to control and turn on / off the streams of data they choose to open or share with others from a dashboard
  6. Businessesshould be considering what of their data can be opened in the national interest and what can be shared through an appropriate commercial arrangement
  7. Industry Leaders and Think Tanksshould be assisting Government in informing and delivering their Data Governance Strategies

Jon Robertson is currently the Delivery Lead for Tombolo and leading City Data projects at Future Cities Catapult. Follow him on Twitter or connect on Linkedin. You can also view a version of this blog here.

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