April 14, 2020

Government data: We're all in beta now

Coronavirus is forcing long-anticipated data reform in European governments.

Mike Bracken

4 min read

Switzerland's Bundeshaus. Credit: Jonas Zurcher, Unsplash

Crises are tests of institutional resilience. They also spark institutional reform. A decade ago, the UK government, reeling from the global financial crisis, built GOV.UK and started to take digital services seriously. Government digital service units and single domains are now the new normal. The coronavirus crisis is, at last, forcing governments to take the next step: embracing data for public good at the expense of their own sovereignty.

So far in the coronavirus, the response from Western economies — the US aside — has succeeded in providing analogue answers to immediate, analogue problems. Field hospitals, lockdown and huge economic stimuli have formed ‘the hammer’ — a swift, aggressive response to flatten the curve of infection.  

What will be keeping policy-makers awake at night now is ‘the dance’ — the measures for longer-term containment of the virus. These are a set of interrelated technocratic issues, and at their heart is data. It will take data scientists and technical architects working with public health technocrats to lead us on the dance floor as the virus mutates through our society, economy and systems of government. These are internet-era skills, and that’s not great news for governments that have failed to embrace these experts.


Asian governments have shown us that a radical response on data is needed to track the health and economic effects of coronavirus. Several had a practice run with SARS and MERS. The consensual gathering of data from the TraceTogether app, aimed at reducing the spread of the virus in Singapore, deepens citizens’ trust, as the data is encrypted and destroyed after 21 days. South Korea’s extensive testing has meant authorities have had a vast amount of data from the onset — plus they’ve been able to accurately trace the spread. 

This tracking infrastructure has not required a huge deviation from existing state policy. In terms of technology, reliable data platforms and sources were already in place. With China as the most extreme example, there is a tacit trade-off between the convenience and competence of state services, and the loss of personal privacy. Through most British eyes, mass tracking of the public has been an intolerable price to pay for personalised public services. And while that may remain so, there is no doubt that the calculus has changed.

Open sesame

European nations urgently need to confront profound changes in data practice which will change our social contracts. The containment of coronavirus is less a policy choice than a need to reform the machinery of government. 

New regulatory and institutional models are emerging. Distributed data querying platforms, such as Medco in Switzerland, which protect individual data rights may get state approval. Shared platforms like the UK’s Notify are helping Canada and Australia to communicate with their citizens. Data sharing across agencies may well be the way to unlock track and trace, with the most likely contender for a service across Europe being www.pepp-pt.org, a collaboration of two German agencies which have a strong data privacy ethic. 

Centralised data teams that rigorously enforce open standards, backed by muscular data registrars across key public data sets, will be one outcome. Officials and ministers will need to be held accountable for not sharing data, and the economic price of timely and available data will no longer be absent from the financial planning of most governments.

Data sets that were previously sovereign to one arm of the state — such as land and property data — will be shared and seen as essential to public wellbeing as physical infrastructure such as hospitals. Belatedly, and now hurriedly, governments will need to retire thousands of incomplete and inaccurate data sets. And there will be no tolerance for the sovereignty of government institutions refusing to make data open and queryable. The situation in the UK is dismal in this regard, with land, business, tax and health data behind departmental and agency silos that now defy explanation. 

The experts are needed as never before. Public servants need the know-how to take a lead on digital delivery, and be able to work with specialist data providers. The dialogue of the deaf with the tech giants and their rent-seeking behaviour must now surely be at an end. 

Coronavirus has reminded even the most conservative among us that there is a role for the state after all. No government can outsource their way through this test. Suddenly, the absence of data skills at the centre of government is a life and death issue.

The hammer blows will decrease. As the dance begins, states must respond with agility, using public and private data. An era of central data units may emerge. Regulation for data registries and more powerful registrars seems certain as public trust in government data and a new locus for privacy and surveillance are all being tried and tested on a daily basis. This is one big A/B test for governments, whether democratic or autocratic. This may not be the internet founders’ much longed-for government 2.0 moment, but we are all in beta now.