Data Science for the Public Good in the North East

In the age of artificial intelligence, data is more than just a buzzword—it is a powerhouse for innovation, especially outside the boardroom. With its eye on the future, the UK has laid down ambitious plans to mine this potential, but what about the challenges that lie ahead? Let’s take a closer look at the North East’s journey through the data landscape.

A Digital Revolution in the North East?

Regarding data and technology, the North East is not behind other regions in the UK. It is the nest of pioneering initiatives like the National Innovation Centre for Data (NICD) and Sunderland Software City. Staff members from Durham University developed Nomis, a platform by which we access data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). These are crucial organisations towards a smarter, more efficient use of technology. The North East is also a hub for esteemed universities renowned for research and innovation, offering a wealth of knowledge for private enterprises and a powerful tool for enhancing public service. Policymakers in the region have a goldmine of data at their fingertips if only they can unlock its full potential.

The Roadblocks to Breaking Through Data

The barriers to this data revolution are well-known: access, quality, and literacy. These are the three greatest challenges for any data analyst.

The UK might be rich in open datasets, but these are spread across numerous platforms. For example, the Office for National Statistics has multiple systems, each with its own quirks and complexities. And let’s not get started on the red tape that comes with sensitive data.

Navigating the UK’s ever-shifting geography doesn’t help either. Boundaries change, data gets outdated, and suddenly, you are trying to solve a puzzle with missing pieces. The lesson? Quality and consistency are precious and rare.

And what is data without the know-how to use it? Enter data literacy—the ability to critically engage with data, no matter the context. It’s not just about reading numbers; it’s about making meaningful sense of them. The bad news? Not everyone’s up to speed, and that’s putting the brakes on progress.

Local Focus, National Impact

While the government has been busy crunching numbers at the top, local governments are starting to feel left out. They are on the front lines, managing nearly everything from highways to social services and drowning in data while they do so.

Hence, a regional strategy tailored to the North East’s needs could be a game-changer, setting the stage for smarter, more collaborative policymaking.

Devolution offers a jumping-off point, promising a partnership for innovation and better use of local data. But this can only be achieved with a clear, strategic, regional vision. Consider the case of artificial intelligence (AI). While repetitive government tasks might be automated with AI, its safe use requires common ethical standards.

From Data to Governance Intelligence

Data science isn’t just about keeping businesses competitive; it’s about shaping a government that listens, learns, and leads with reliable evidence. Forecasting, analysing, and generating insights—these tools can help turn data into decisions that genuinely reflect community needs.

Remember that data isn’t just a numbers game. Stories, experiences, qualitative material—it’s all part of the bigger picture. When governments understand what’s working and what’s not, they are better positioned to spend wisely and respond precisely to the community’s needs. Evidence-based policymaking is not only about taking data seriously; the local community must be involved in the process.

The Path Ahead for the North East

The potential is there, but the North East still faces hurdles: tight budgets, bureaucracy, and the need for a unified approach. Devolution could be the key, offering a chance to refocus on local needs and data capabilities. By investing in data and AI skills and uniting existing resources, the North East can not only catch up but become a strong innovation hub.

Communities of practice and networks are important to unite diverse minds and create collaborative new solutions. The North East has made a start with the North Eastern ICT Partnership and Analytics Network North East (ANNE). Now is the time to rally these initiatives and push for inclusive, tech-driven progress.

In a world driven by data, the North East is well-positioned to lead the way. The journey is fraught with challenges, but the destination— smarter, more responsive policy development —is well worth the effort.

Insights North East (INE) offers several services to help local policymakers in data-related tasks: one-to-one support, open data, and upskilling. On the 19th of April, we will host our first ‘datathon’. This event will focus on public health, bringing the opportunity to discuss how progress is measured and tracked by different public sector organisations. It will also offer a session on data visualisation to explore techniques and software. Registrations have now closed, but it is clear there is significant demand, so we will look to run further events in the future.

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