The big data dilemma Contents

3Skills and Infrastructure


20.TechUK, like other witnesses, were clear that “the UK has a fantastic opportunity to be a world-leader in the development, adoption and exploitation of advanced big data analytics technologies, and is making steady progress to date.” This progress will stall, however, without urgent action to address our digital skills crisis. Tech UK found in a recent survey that 93% of technology companies experienced digital skills gaps which affected their operations. They stressed, as others also did, that “the digital skills gap is a major concern for industry, and if not overcome will impede the UK’s ability to be a world-leader”.36 Our predecessor Committee had similarly concluded in 2014 that:

Data science is yet another skills area that urgently needs to be addressed if the UK is to be able to build an economy that can compete on the global stage. It is essential that the Government ensures that data science skills are promoted in educational institutions and within organisations that are able to provide data skills development.37

21.Nesta saw the key to achieving the full potential of big data to be “finding people with the right mix of skills—the data scientists who combine technical skills, analytical and industry knowledge, and the business sense and soft skills to turn data into value for employers”.38 In 2015, Nesta and Universities UK published Analytic Britain: Securing the right skills for the data-driven economy on how to “adapt, re-purpose and prioritise existing initiatives and programmes” to “remedy skills shortages in the short term, while ensuring a sustainable supply of excellent analytical talent in the longer term”.39 Recommendations for the school and university sectors were concerned with:

22.The University of Cambridge’s Big Data Strategic Research Initiative emphasised that “data science is fundamentally interdisciplinary …. Collaborative partnerships, for interdisciplinary research and training … as well as between academic, commercial and policy stakeholders, must be supported and promoted.”40 Tech UK saw a need for “a strategy to boost the domestic big data talent pipeline and address the immediate skills shortage through a smart migration policy environment”, addressing visa rules for overseas workers and students. They also wanted the Government’s apprenticeship scheme to be “geared toward the high-value jobs of the future, such as big data” and the new schools Computing Curriculum to be delivered with sufficient numbers and quality of teachers.41

23.Dr Paul Feldman, chief executive of JISC, told us that a cross-cutting taskforce envisaged in the Analytic Britain report (paragraph 21) would soon be convened—including TechUK, the Digital Catapult, the Tech Partnership, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills and others—to “discuss some of the skills issues and where we can try to plug skills gaps”.42 The Government told us that it was “working closely with Nesta, Universities UK and the British Academy on following-up recent studies into business demand for data analytics skills and how these skills are currently taught across different disciplines in [higher education] institutions”.43 The Government listed for us initiatives it had launched over recent years to develop education and training in data analytics:

Skills in government

24.In the 2015 Spending Review the Government announced £450 million for the Government Digital Service,45 which would “continue to act as the digital, data and technology centre for government”.46 Paul Maltby, Director of Data at the GDS, highlighted elements of the Government’s data programme. This included “improving the Government’s data infrastructure” (paragraph 28), “continuing our work on open data” (paragraph 34), and “introducing data science more at scale across the government system … in a way that will be transformative in how we are able to use data for digital services” (paragraph 38) and developing common policy objectives across government.47

25.In terms of skills, Paul Maltby told us that the Government has not had difficulty recruiting data scientists at an early stage in their careers but that “affording people later in their career is somewhat difficult”, and that retention could be a problem.48 However, he pointed to a development package for existing analysts in which they had “learned to use some of the [data scientists’] tools and techniques”.49

26.As the Government Digital Service has noted, “the world of data does not stop neatly at administrative borders”, and has emphasised that its work “will need to speak across to local authorities, the NHS and the devolved administrations”.50 When pressed on what this would entail, however, Paul Maltby told us:

For the moment [our data accelerator programme] has been a central government thing. … Certainly central government would not want to dictate an approach and tell people what to do. There are great analysts all over local government, and people have a different way of doing things in each area. … As this new programme starts, the data steering group has representation from senior leaders in local government. It will be a question of how we see things developing. Things like data standards and data infrastructure do not easily stop at administrative borders, so we are keen to think about how we make the most of that.51

The ultimate aim for Government was to:

spread [a data science] capability, knowledge and skillset very broadly indeed. A world where Government departments and public agencies had already fixed their data infrastructure in a way that made it inter-operable and fluid, where it should be fluid, so that they had fabulous data sites and capabilities integrated within the decision-making processes and services for citizens as a matter of course would be a fabulous thing, and it is something we are aiming towards.52

27.The digital skills gap is approaching crisis levels and this not only has economic implications but also puts the quality and security of this data at risk. There is a range of Government initiatives to help develop computing and digital skills, but the wider set of ‘big data’ skills is not being strategically addressed. This risks UK business being unable to grow the big data sector at the pace it should. In the meantime, this skills gap is forecast to grow exponentially as big data reaches further into the economy. The evidence we received on the digital skills crisis was so concerning that we have launched a further inquiry specifically into this issue on which we will report shortly. In the meantime, the Government should commit to (a) a continuing substantial role in developing data analytics skills in businesses, with others already working in this field; (b) increasing big data skills training for staff in Government departments; and (c) promoting more extensively the application of big data at local government level. But the Government must also address the wider context of its policies on apprenticeships and immigration control. As it develops its approach in these areas, it should explicitly address widespread concerns that these could jeopardise the necessary big data skills-base that the UK will increasingly need. The Government should also set out in detail how the Government Digital Services’ budget, including the additional funding announced in the Spending Review, will be spent.


28.In addition to education and training, the Government has recognised the need for infrastructure development in the research sector. It told us that:

Since 2011, the Government has invested over £520 million in developing the UK’s big data and high-performance computing capital infrastructure. This programme includes major investments in specialist centres such as the Farr Institute of Health Informatics Research, the Higgs Centre for Innovation, and the Hartree Centre at the Daresbury Science & Innovation Campus. The recent Government investment of £113 million in the Hartree Centre will develop cognitive computing and data intensive technologies to lower the skills barriers to using and deriving benefit from data.53

The Alan Turing Institute, the UK’s national institute for data science, was launched in November 2015 with a £42 million grant announced in Autumn Statement 2014.54 The Institute aims to:

enable knowledge and predictions to be extracted from large-scale and diverse digital data. It will bring together the best people, organisations and technologies in data science for the development of foundational theory, methodologies and algorithms. These will inform scientific and technological discoveries, create new business opportunities, accelerate solutions to global challenges, inform policy-making, and improve the environment, health and infrastructure of the world in an ‘Age of Algorithms’.55

29.Dr Paul Feldmann from JISC, which provides digital technology and resources for higher and further education and researchers, told us how the JANET network gives researchers in universities “access to the high-performance computing they will need to process that data”.56 JISC noted however that a lack of access to such facilities can be a block for big data exploitation among businesses—”the barriers to [analysing] big data sets can be significant, particularly where expertise and access to high performance computing … facilities are concerned”.57 In response to this, JISC have established a process which allows small and medium-sized enterprises and universities to “purchase access” to infrastructure and expertise in “£60 million of publicly-funded high-performance computing facilities”.58

30.The minister for the digital economy, Ed Vaizey MP, emphasised that:

The Government’s role is to invest in big projects that can help companies analyse big data or invest in skills, because we need data scientists who can help companies crack those big datasets, and also work with companies to tell them about the opportunities and give them a route map to engage in big data.59

The Government told us that infrastructure was part of that approach:

The Government recognises the importance of creating a coordinated infrastructure for our data capability. This includes offering industrial access to academic infrastructure for specific needs such as pre-competitive collaborative research, and small business access to advanced software and hardware.60

The Minister described this in more detail:

The digital catapult is particularly focused on small businesses. It encourages small businesses and is designed to be a space for them to try out new business models and have the resources available to do that, which only a big company might have. That is the first issue. There are big companies as well. … We are doing [a collaboration] with IBM in terms of their health technology. They can work with the big data projects that the Government are funding. There are hundreds of millions of pounds going into these projects, and even big companies could not necessarily match that kind of research, so it is important that we collaborate with business.61

31.While investment for big data research is welcome, we believe that the Government should explore further ways of making publicly-funded infrastructure and expertise available to more businesses. The Digital Catapult is a good start but it is essential that ongoing resource investment in the Catapult is maintained so that it can consolidate and expand its work. As big data becomes an increasingly significant part of our economy, the Government should set out its strategy for longer term big data infrastructure development and how it will work with industry to provide a coherent programme of business support.

36 Tech UK (BIG0039)

37 Science and Technology Committee, Responsible Use of Data, Fourth Report of Session 2014–15, HC 245

38 Nesta (BIG0047)

39 Nesta (BIG0047)

40 University of Cambridge Big Data Strategic Research Initiative (BIG0016)

41 Tech UK (BIG0039)

42 Q63

43 BIS and DCMS (BIG0069)

44 BIS and DCMS (BIG0069)

45 HM Treasury, Spending Review and Autumn Statement 2015, Cm 9162 (November 2015), para 1.287

46 Q187

47 Q187

48 Q196

49 Qq192, 196

50 Paul Maltby, The work of the government data programme, blog, 24 September 2015

51 Qq198-199

52 Q201

53 BIS and DCMS (BIG0069)

54 HM Treasury, Autumn Statement 2014, Cm 8961 (December 2014)

55 The Alan Turing Institute website, accessed January 2016

56 Q39

57 JISC (BIG0027)

58 JISC (BIG0027)

59 Q237

60 BIS and DCMS (BIG0069)

61 Q244

© Parliamentary copyright 2015

Prepared 11 February 2016