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Report on techUK Smart Data Roundtable

At techUK's Roundtable on 4 November experts from BEIS and Ofcom discussed the Smart Data initiative with members.

The government’s plans to extend the ideas of open banking to any other sectors of the economy it may choose, now or in the future, have been announced and passed over with remarkably little fuss. Yet, in their impact on business models, these are some of the most radical plans to come from government in recent years.

The response to the smart data review, published by the Department for Business Energy and Industry Strategy (BEIS), in September 2020, states that, when Parliamentary time allows, the government will ‘legislate to mandate firms’ participation in an ‘Open Communications’ initiative, and to give government the power to introduce Smart Data initiatives in any other market.’

This means that, while open communications will be the first priority for the open data initiative, the power will remain on the statute book for the mandating of companies on any other market to also open their data up to access by third parties. The implications of this for traditional competition-based business models are clear. If customer data, traditionally held in silos by companies, is to be shared with potential competitors in the same and in other markets, models are likely to change from purely competitive to more collaborative forms. This heralds a new way of working in an economy which is becoming increasingly digital. To look in detail at these plans and their implications, techuk held a spirited debate with speakers from BEIS and Ofcom at a roundtable on 4 November.

Siobhan Dennehy, Head of Economic Regulation, Consumer and Competition Policy at BEIS, outlined the essentials of the plans. The overall aims are to improve competition and stimulate innovation to improve the pricing and quality of services for both consumer and SME customers. Initially, the focus will be on the sectors where open data initiatives have already begun i.e. financial services, energy and communications. The government has also established a cross-sectoral smart data working group made up of government departments and regulators, which will ensure coordination and consistency across the different initiatives.

Will Pinkney, Principal, Networks and Communications, Ofcom, urged attendees to participate in the consultation launched by Ofcom earlier this year to establish the primary aims, benefits and operational parameters of open communications. He noted that the main possible benefits already identified included allowing customers to better manage the quality of the their service and to compare offerings to ensure they chose the best option for their own circumstances. Yet he expected innovators to come up with many more imaginative use-cases.

The discussion, chaired by Louise Beaumont, chair of techUK Open Banking Group, raised a number of questions as to the technical nature of putting open data into place, but quickly moved on to the more tricky issues of ensuring consistency across markets and consumer protection issues. In response to questions from attendees, both speakers acknowledged that identifying what standards ought to cover all sectors and establishing proper governance would be key. In addition, there were tricky issues concerning how to ensure customer data was used in an ‘ethical’ way so that consumers could trust the process. Some attendees felt that consumers could not be left with this responsibility themselves, even if there was full transparency, and a redress or ombudsman service might be required. The speakers made clear that the work would be taken in stages and that much, including such elements, remained to be decided. They stressed that they would be conducting detailed consultation with industry and were open to receiving views and comments from all interested parties.


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