On the 8th of October (2019) GovTech Lab’s Dr. Zeynep Engin addressed the Westminster Higher Education Forum Keynote Seminar: Evidence-based policymaking – strengthening the impact of academic and industry research on policy development.

Zeynep’s address can be found below:

Opportunities for embedding evidence-based policy across Government Positioning data at the heart of policy processes – priorities for identifying and collecting data, and conducting analysis

Thank you to the organisers for inviting me, it’s a great pleasure to be here today.

As mentioned, I’m based in the Department of Computer Science at UCL, where I am also involved with the Urban Dynamics Laboratory as part of this role. There are a few other things that I do, one of which is the Data for Policy conference series, we also have a new Data and Policy Journal that we have launched together with Cambridge University Press. There is also the GovTech Lab that we have established, again at UCL.  I’m mentioning all these because in effect the topic of the event is broadly of all what I’m trying to do.

I should, however, also mention that I have the luxury to be in an academic environment, rather than in a policy decision making situation. I’m not a civil servant and I am not very familiar with the day-to-day  constraints of public decision makers,  rather I am looking into issues from a more idealistic point of view, trying to see what we can do with all the available data sources that are around us, both from traditional and new sources, starting with surveys and official statistics going all the way to the internet of things, social media data, and administrative data and other sources, such as online footprints that we leave during every day activities.

So, what are we going to do with all this data to improve our lives and also for the common good?  The way we have framed it within my research group is to first look into the real-time management of public services of Government activities generally. For the first time in history, we have the opportunity to do real time management, given that we have data from everywhere and in every form.  We have city dashboards, for example, to see what is happening around our cities and to act upon that sort of real time knowledge.

Within the urban management framework in particular, we also have longer term planning decisions to make at present. We have the enormous capability to track what is happening over various time periods through developments such as digital twins or other tools, which we can make use of to see how the different characteristics of our cities, our environments generally, are developing over time and hence make better projections for the future.

And there is also the element, the third element of really thinking about architecting or creating new futures. We now have communities emerging in virtual environments, on online environments rather than in city squares, cafés or other common areas. We have to find completely new ways of looking into these types of developments increasingly shaping the way we interact with each other and create value in the economy.

As well as the enormous opportunities, we must also mention the ethical concerns arising from such developments. The most common concerns are data sharing and the quality of data that goes into today’s black-box data driven systems, resulting in various types of fairness issues and discrimination against minorities and other already disadvantaged groups in the population.

We have the transparency issue of deploying analytics that we do not fully understand as well. Stakes are clearly higher for government and public decision-making and hence we do not envision that the solutions which work well for the private sector tasks will work equally well in this environment. Unless we sufficiently understand what is happening in these systems, we cannot fully justify their use for public decisions. Having said that, we also have to note that we are at a point in time in which we simply cannot afford to not use data and analytics capabilities to manage complexities of our environments.

Thank you.