Estonia is a small ex-Soviet country in Northern Europe that has a population of only 1.3 million, seven times less than London.

The software for Skype was created by Estonians and 44% of the now Microsoft-owned company’s employees are based in the country. Its capital, Tallinn, is known as the Silicon Valley of Europe and it has the continent’s highest number of startups per head.

So, when Taavi Kotka, Estonia’s first government CIO and a key figure in rolling out e-residency across the nation, says that the UK is at risk of being left behind when it comes to digital transformation, the UK needs to sit up and take notice.

Kotka, who spoke at a recent WIRED/Capita partnered roundtable on Data, identity and the digital citizen, may know more about the issue than many, but concern about the UK’s digital capabilities is longstanding. For example, when it comes to digital identity, the country still largely relies on physical documents for everything from getting a mortgage to proving you are who you say you are. Compare this to other countries such as Estonia and Sweden who have digital identity systems that make processes faster and errors less likely.

So, is the UK doing anything to catch up and why is it so far behind in the first place?

The need to go digital was on organisations’ minds before the coronavirus pandemic hit, but it is no longer a case of ‘would like to’. According to the World Economic Forum, companies that do not digitally transform will fail. Stuart Coleman, the Open Data Institute’s Business Development Director, says: “Businesses need to work together to share data to help them innovate quickly, achieve efficiencies, build resilience and ultimately recover.”

We have all become acutely more aware of the power of data during the pandemic. Watching the daily briefings, keeping an eye on the R number, and then finding ourselves directly impacted by movements in data that manifest themselves in restrictions lifting or being enforced. According to the Science and Technology Committee, better use of data early could have saved lives – the speed at which public health data was made available when coronavirus first hit was “unacceptable” in their eyes.

Throughout 2021, the Capita Institute is undertaking a study of over 350 key decision makers to understand how as individuals, as organisations and as industries we have been affected by the pandemic and how we are adapting in these tough times. In four quarterly ‘pulse’ surveys conducted in partnership with YouGov, we’re looking at whether there is a great opportunity to view work and life after the pandemic as a new frontier.

In our Pulse 2 report, which is based on field research conducted in April/May of this year and is available to download now, 85% of respondents thought that data had been important to their organisational decision-making during the previous 12 months. In addition, 73% reported that they had seen the way they used data improve since April 2020.

But has this improvement gone far enough? We surveyed individuals across industries from three sectors: government (central and local government, police, army, navy and RAF), financial services (retail banking, investment banking, wealth and asset management and insurance), and critical infrastructure (telecommunications, utilities, oil & energy and transport). The proportion who told us that their organisation has a data-driven view of its customers/citizens was less than half (42%) and ranged from financial services, where around a third (36%) agreed that their organisations adopted a data-driven approach, to government where only a quarter (25%) agreed. Overall, only 24% claimed to always share data as part of their efforts to collaborate more with other organisations and improve the experience of customers/citizens. Tellingly, one senior director put “lack of coherent global data agreements” as one of their biggest challenges for the next six months.

Could the UK’s seeming reluctance to share data have historical precedence? Britain’s 19th Century political attitude was known to be one of ‘splendid isolation’, with the nation wishing to avoid making permanent alliances. Whether this expression was a formal policy, and if so, how much impact it actually had, is a matter for debate. But it is interesting to note that Britain has again distanced itself from a European body. The merit of the decision to leave the EU will be revealed in time, but could a desire to be self-contained (or preserve an ‘island mentality’) be deeply entrenched in our values?

And as a result, could it be that this perspective is so deeply embedded in the UK that it still influences the country today, on matters such as data sharing? Could this perspective be a barrier to developing and delivering valuable digital products and services, the likes of which have seen countries such as Estonia embrace the benefits of digitising citizenship?

Whatever the reason, there is concern for the UK’s digital future. Many are warning that the UK is heading towards a “digital skills shortage disaster”. One area that deserves attention is data literacy. Data literacy is defined by the Open Data Institute as “the ability to think critically about data in different contexts and examine the impact of different approaches when collecting, using and sharing data and information.” The benefits to not only acquiring data but using it intelligently include boosting productivity, creating new businesses and jobs and improving public services. The majority (86%) of our Pulse 2 survey respondents told us that the informed use of data and building data literacy is important to drive decisions in their organisations going forward.

Some progress is being made in the UK. In 2020, The London Data Commission was established to create a new data framework to bring together all parts of London’s government with the private sector, and make better use of the anonymised data that currently exists. And the need for improved data literacy has been addressed by the Government in its Quantifying the UK Data Skills Gap policy paper. In his ministerial foreword, The Rt Hon John Whittingdale OBE MP, Minister of State for Media and Data, recognises the scale of the problem. Significant demand for data skills in UK companies means that there are somewhere between 178,000 to 234,000 roles requiring hard data skills. Measures the Government is taking include the Office for AI launching a degree conversion course programme in data science and AI to create at least 2,500 graduates over three years, and the Department for Education rolling out digital bootcamps that include courses in data analysis.

Hopefully these are indications that the UK is heading down the right path. The better we share data and invest in improving our data literacy, the closer we will get to a more positive economic and social future – and help make sure we are not left behind.

You can register using the button below to receive your copy of the full great opportunity debate Pulse 2 report and automatically receive our third pulse report, which will be published in the Autumn.

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