Article - Issue 50, March 2012

Data Innovation

Dr Scott Steedman CBE FREng

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Dr Scott Steedman FREng

Dr Scott Steedman CBE FREng

Access to data is a fundamental building block for innovation, especially in sectors that draw information and insights from many different subject disciplines. In a knowledge intensive world, it is clear that having the capacity to harvest knowledge from other domains is crucial if companies are to make rapid progress in the development of products and services.

There are many barriers to innovation that relate to data collection and dissemination. Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) form a vital part of any innovation strategy where it takes time and money to develop new products and services. But dealing with IPR, which may be enshrined in copyright or patents, or the cost of searching and accessing information, creates potential barriers to growth for small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in particular. Speed to market may allow some SMEs to avoid getting bogged down by patent issues, but for all innovators, access to data, which is often costly or simply inaccessible, remains fundamental to the development of new disruptive technologies for which the UK’s research base is world-renowned.

New models are emerging for our national IP policy. Last year, Professor Ian Hargreaves published a hard-hitting report, Digital Opportunity, on the relationship between intellectual property and growth. Professor Hargreaves showed that new approaches to copyright licensing could enable data exchange on an unprecedented scale. He suggested drafting exceptions to copyright that are aligned with modern digital technology, providing clarity over what is and what is not permitted in searching, copying and using data in all of the many formats that it is now found.

Alongside proposals for technology and innovation centres (to be known as Catapult Centres) and incentives for SMEs, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) has taken forward a number of Professor Hargreaves’s recommendations in its report Innovation and Research Strategy for Growth. A key commitment in the report, published in December, is to stimulate innovation in digital technologies, and their application across industries, by releasing public sector data under an ‘Open Data and Transparency’ initiative.

The report argues that releasing information on this scale will enable innovative companies to develop products and services that can extract value from the vast body of data acquired by government agencies over the decades. Healthcare and social care datasets, highways and traffic data and even reference data from the Met Office, Ordnance Survey, Land Registry and Companies House are all under consideration for release.

An Open Data Institute is to be established at “Silicon Roundabout” in Shoreditch, London, under the direction of Sir Tim Berners Lee FREng FRS and Professor Nigel Shadbolt FREng, to explore opportunities that may emerge from the ‘Internet of Things’ (Ingenia 46, Beyond Semantics). The new institute will focus on innovation, commercialisation and the development of web standards to support the open data agenda.

In a further radical step, BIS has proposed providing free access to all publications arising from taxpayer funded research. This would align the UK firmly behind the open access movement, an initiative to grant free or low cost access to research publications that has been growing in popularity around the world over the past decade. Such a move simplifies access by researchers to the work of others around the world, reducing the risk of re-inventing the wheel and providing direct benefit to researchers in developing countries. Evidence shows that citation rates for engineering papers that are freely available are over twice as high as for papers that are not. Universities such as Southampton and Stirling, which have pioneered open access in the UK, have already achieved major international recognition through making tens of thousands of research papers freely available online.

We are on the brink of a sea change in access to data in the UK that will be of huge value to researchers and entrepreneurs alike. With these new strategies towards the release of public data and the reform of copyright restrictions in place, the potential is there for companies, small and large, to unlock a new wave of innovative products and services in engineering and digital technology. Great opportunities await the data innovators; there’s no time to waste.

Dr Scott Steedman CBE FREng

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