Prof Ed Curry

Focus on research: Prof Ed Curry, Insight

Why the National Digital Strategy demands a national digital infrastructure
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Prof Ed Curry, Insight

9 February 2022

Prof Ed Curry is a professor of Data Science and director of Insight, the SFI research centre for data analytics at NUI Galway. He is also vice president of the Big Data Value Association, a non-profit industry-led organisation with the objective of increasing the competitiveness of European Companies with data-driven innovation. In his article he argues the need for a new infrastructure to meet the needs of the national digital strategy.

The new national digital strategy lists a series of commitments designed to kick off Ireland’s digital transformation consisting of universal connectivity, digital skills for all, digital public services, and digital support for small businesses.

All these elements are critical, but to really drive digital transformation in Ireland we need to get serious about building a data infrastructure. Much like national electrification in the 1930s, a data infrastructure is the grid that will connect and support all elements of the digital strategy wish list.

 

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We have generated a lot of data in the last two years because everything happened online in lockdown. The result for social media platforms, online retailers and financial service companies was profit. Every ‘click’ and ‘checkout’ and ‘share’ is a data point that translates into money. 

Meanwhile in the public realm there was a scramble to gather data at scale. It was out there, but not connected. Government departments, hospitals and transport providers had a life-or-death requirement to track the behaviour of users to deduce where Covid-19 had been and where it might be going. More data meant more information, more knowledge and fewer deaths.

Rather like the rapid development of weapons technology in wartime, the pandemic saw rapid deployment of data sharing in the public space. We were too far behind in this process and we made significant leaps forward. However, there is so much more to do.

We have to take the progress made in 20/21 and keep building. We need a public data space that can be used for public good, to tackle major societal challenges like health and climate change. We also need to give regular businesses a fighting chance against the giants by creating a space where sectoral data can be safely, ethically shared and used by those who need it. How do we do this?

A single market for data

The European Commission Data Strategy calls for the development of a European data space, a shared infrastructure like electricity, or a roads network. It can unlock the value of data to society by creating a ‘data common’ where individuals and organisations can share their data anonymously to tackle critical societal challenges. At the level of business, local enterprise in a data space gets to make decisions using the same kind of data intelligence available to multinationals.

As the information accumulates, researchers and policymakers can begin to link, mix, and analyse to extract insights. To avoid potential tragedy, it is vital that owners are given a voice in how their data is used. A recent step in this direction is the creation of public data hubs for Covid-19, where citizens and organisations have shared their data to help tackle the pandemic.

At Insight we have been researching data space technology for the last decade. We have focused on the nuts and bolts of a data infrastructure; semantics and linguistics, knowledge graphs, linked data, the Internet of Things in domains such as enterprise, health, city, water and energy. As the national data research centre we have at our core a commitment to trustworthy AI that doesn’t exploit those who own the data in the first place.

There is a clear path forward for Ireland in the creation of national data spaces that can link up with the European data space.

We need to establish a community of practice to engage data engineers and data scientists to share experiences and know-how of building and using public data infrastructures.

We require a common roadmap for the development and adoption of a pan-European data space by investing in the technical building blocks and architectures, data governance models and data standardisation.

We must provide simple approaches for fair legal and ethical frameworks that make it straightforward for small businesses to navigate the regulatory landscape.

The transition to data space technology will take some time. A decade may pass before we understand the methods and the means of mature data spaces. The World Wide Web took from the mid-1990s to well beyond 2000 to develop into the everyday tool we use today. Ireland is behind the curve but could catch up quickly if we mobilise the significant expertise already available to us in our universities and research centres.

Moreover, the development of data spaces requires the engagement and agreement of our society. In the same way agreement preceded a common approach for the electricity grid, we need negotiation and collective agreement to create the basis of the data economy and common European data spaces.

If we cannot give citizens and local enterprises the means to exploit and benefit from the growing global data reserve, the majority of us will remain passive generators of data for the benefit of the very few. A data infrastructure that is accessible to all is as important as the power grid. Without it, the great majority of us are living in the dark.

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