Data should be treated with the same care as other national infrastructure if we want to ensure that we have the skills to create, maintain and develop it in a safe and useful way according to Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt FREng, who will stress the importance of changing views on data at the Royal Academy of Engineering’s annual Hinton Lecture on Thursday 24 November.

Just as vital infrastructure such as bridges, tunnels and power networks do not look after themselves, Sir Nigel says that resources must be invested to maintain and support data to ensure its utility. Useable open data, such as location information used with satellite navigation technology, can do much to serve the common good and provide essential services and should be treated with the same importance as physical infrastructure.

Viewing data as infrastructure also raises questions about how data is generated and formatted, as it is important for usable data to be well engineered and standardised. This is not just a question of standards and regulation, but involves changing the perception of data.

Sir Nigel explains: “We understand what engineering means in a context such as manufacturing – it means something that is well-designed, of a high quality, reliable and reproducible on a large scale. However, when it comes to data, the reality is often very different. Data is produced at an astonishing rate without sufficient thought about these issues.”

Sir Nigel, who is co-founder of the Open Data Institute, will also use the lecture to call for transparency on how data is processed by artificial intelligence. As data is generated at exponentially greater rates, machines will play a larger role in processing it, but is important that at any point the machine algorithms are scrutable, and therefore the data must be designed in a way to make this possible. Applying sound engineering principles to data not only increases its utility, but also helps to ensure data security and the safety of users.

The Academy set out the challenges and opportunities of the data economy in a recent report, Connecting Data: driving productivity and innovation.

Notes for editors

  1. Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt FREng is Principal of Jesus College, Oxford and Professorial Research Fellow in the University of Oxford’s Department of Computer Science. He is also Chairman and Co-founder, with Sir Tim Berners-Lee OM KBE FREng FRS, of the Open Data Institute (ODI), which was launched in 2012 to promote the creation of economic, environment and societal value from open data releases.

    Since 2009, Sir Nigel has served as Information Advisor to the UK government, and in 2010 was appointed to the UK Public Sector Transparency Board, overseeing a transformation in public access to government information. He was knighted in 2013 for services to science and engineering.

    From 2006-2007, Sir Nigel was President of the British Computer Society, and in 2006 was elected a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering.
  2. The Hinton Lecture is the flagship annual lecture of the Royal Academy of Engineering. It is named after the late Lord Hinton of Bankside OM KBE FREng FRS, the first President of the Academy.
  3. Royal Academy of Engineering. As the UK’s national academy for engineering, we bring together the most successful and talented engineers for a shared purpose: to advance and promote excellence in engineering. We provide analysis and policy support to promote the UK’s role as a great place to do business. We take a lead on engineering education and we invest in the UK’s world-class research base to underpin innovation. We work to improve public awareness and understanding of engineering. We are a national academy with a global outlook.

    We have four strategic challenges:
    - Make the UK the leading nation for engineering innovation
    - Address the engineering skills crisis
    - Position engineering at the heart of society
    - Lead the profession 

For more information please contact:

Aaron Boardley at the Royal Academy of Engineering
T: 020 7766 0655
E:  Aaron Boardley