From education to employment

We must focus on literacy and skills to realise the great data opportunity

The end of the year can be a time when the policy machine starts to wind down. But that certainly hasn’t been the case with the National Data Strategy.

Late November saw the UK Data Skills Taskforce unveil its Data Skills Portal – a new tool for measuring organisational data readiness in SMEs. The portal provides a self-assessment tool to help businesses understand their organisational and technical readiness regarding data. It uses the information to signpost business owners to relevant resources and training to improve capability across four dimensions of data readiness.

The previous work of the Taskforce has highlighted why these initiatives are needed, and the extent of the data skills gap in the UK. Research has found that UK companies are recruiting for as many as 234,000 roles requiring hard data skills.

But it also found the supply of graduates with specialist data skills from universities is currently limited, and this is holding businesses back and restricting their potential for exciting economic growth. Businesses say graduates are lacking attributes like data ethics, data processing and data communication skills.

Upstream focus

If we want to address this real and quite concerning skills gap, a concerted effort is also needed upstream, within educational settings such as colleges, universities – and even schools. When it comes to preparing the workers of tomorrow for our data future, we really can’t start too soon.

The National Data Strategy recognises the data revolution has implications not only for experts with advanced analytical skills, but for the entire UK workforce. While not every worker needs to become a data scientist, everyone will need a basic level of data literacy to operate and thrive in increasingly ‘data-rich’ environments.  

Through the Bright Initiative we’re working with education institutions and groups around the world, supporting the social need to develop people’s understanding of the power of data, and answering the commercial need to nurture the data professionals of the future.

It’s important that everyone across society has the chance to benefit from the global data economy, which is why I’m especially proud of the work we are doing with award-winning social mobility charity UpReach. They help undergraduates from less-advantaged backgrounds gain top graduate jobs, and a series of workshops have helped build students’ understanding of the global data industry and develop the skills to thrive in a data-driven economy.

Framework 

Alongside the new portal, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Skills (DCMS) has published its policy framework for Mission 1 of the National Data Strategy, which focuses on “unlocking the value of data across the economy”.

This document is important because it sets out what the Government will do directly to encourage the conditions where private and third sector data is more usable, accessible and available across the UK’s economy.

It defines the principles for intervention that the Government will use to help maximise the data opportunity, and sets out priority areas for action to address some of the key barriers to data sharing for public benefit.

It’s good to see the framework focusing on the need to take action on the availability of data for research and development, to unlock many wider benefits to our society. It proposes interventions to “open up or widen access to specific datasets”, and incentives to maximise data sharing in support of public good. It also commits to ensuring good data standards, so that data is handled according to the FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable) principles.

These are all good, sensible steps. But we shouldn’t forget that we already have a massive public dataset at our fingertips – the internet. It’s the largest database in the history of mankind, a rich and open resource that all individuals and organisations can benefit from. It’s not neat and ordered in a spreadsheet, but it’s available right now, for everyone.

However, whether it’s public web data or shared internal data, we can only leverage its tremendous value if we have skilled individuals able to understand and demonstrate a knowledge in data ethics, and interpret data with confidence. A lack of comprehensive data awareness, literacy and skills could end up being the factors that prevent the UK from seizing a golden opportunity. 

The important role of FE

Official research to inform the new policy framework has highlighted the way limited data understanding and literacy is causing inertia within some UK companies; blockers include perceived risks of breaching data laws and lack of sufficient knowledge of the potential uses of data.

Further Education colleges in the UK are key to addressing this issue. As institutions that focus on vocational education and training to give people the skills they need to make a mark with employers, they are exactly where we need to be focusing our efforts around broader data awareness and literacy.

From a recent discussion with leaders of colleges in the Collab Group, it’s clear that there are a number of major issues that need to be tackled. These include the lack of awareness many people have about careers in data hampers them from seeking out relevant learning opportunities.

We also need to ensure that courses and curricula meet industry needs – and there’s also the challenge of attracting people with the strongest grasp of data skills to become educators, particularly given the tech industry’s ability to pay much higher salaries than most education institutions. 

There are many practical steps that can be taken in the face of these challenges. These include efforts to more effectively promote public understanding of the role data plays in society and the economy – and the career possibilities it presents.

We should ensure a strong, ongoing dialogue between educators and industry; and we should also, as a growing data industry, contribute to education programmes, making skilled staff time available to teach and share insight with students. 

The Collab Group discussion was a perfect example of the value in industry collaborating with education institutions to achieve the National Data Strategy. I look forward to helping take the ideas generated forward as we continue on our mission of support for data-education programmes. 

Or Lenchner, CEO, Bright Data


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