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Jeni Tennison, chief executive, Open Data Institute

Jeni Tennison

Path to power

I trained as a psychologist, gaining a PhD in artificial intelligence from the University of Nottingham. I then worked as an independent consultant and practitioner, specialising in open data publishing and consumption. This included being the technical architect and lead developer for legislation.gov.uk, working on the early linked data work on data.gov.uk, and helping to engineer new standards for the publication of statistics as linked data.

 

I have contributed to several international standards through the W3C and was appointed by Sir Tim Berners-Lee to serve on the W3C’s technical architecture group from 2011 to 2015, during which time I chaired the W3C’s HTML data task force. More recently, I co-chaired the W3C’s CSV on the Web Working Group.

 

Having joined the Open Data Institute as technical director in 2012, I was appointed CEO in 2016 and sit on a number of boards, including the advisory boards for the Open Contracting Partnership and the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data; the Department for Health & Social Care’s Tech Advisory Board; and advise OpenUK. I was awarded an OBE for services to technology and open data in the 2014 New Year Honours.

 

What is the proudest achievement of your career to date?

The highlight of my career so far has to be the launch of legislation.gov.uk. It was brilliant to be involved in a project that could demonstrate how to publish data well on the web, both from a technical perspective and a licensing and policy perspective. It was also the start of a move towards a more collaborative way of maintaining that data through an Expert Participation Programme, which has made a real impact on the quality and utility of legislation data in the UK and been a model elsewhere. I’m still proud to have been involved in that work.

 

Who is your role model or the person you look to for inspiration?

It’s hard to pick one person. I have always admired Sir Tim Berners-Lee for his vision and his values, and how he uses his influence to nudge us towards a better future. But I’ve also been inspired by the insight, passion and authenticity of many, many ODI colleagues and alumni.

 

Did 2019 turn out the way you expected? If not, in what ways was it different?

Last year, I predicted that there would be an increased emphasis on data ethics, particularly in the context of a referendum or general election. It’s certainly been the case that there has been a proliferation in data ethics principles and commitments from a range of organisations, as well as a few concretely working to embed ethics into their practice. The larger tech platforms also made steps to improve transparency around political advertising, but there was disappointingly little government or regulatory activity in that area.

 

What do you expect 2020 to be like for the data and analytics industry?

Busy! We have a new Government that has a specific focus on data to inform policy making, increase productivity and make the UK a fairer place. The Government will be issuing its National Data Strategy and Geospatial Data Strategy and planning its activities and investments. The Information Commissioner’s Office and Competition & Markets Authority will be continuing to investigate digital advertising, which could lead to enforcement or policy changes. And we will be seeking a data adequacy ruling from the EU while negotiating trade deals in which data flows are bound to play a part.

 

Data and technology are changing business, the economy and society – what do you see as the biggest opportunity emerging from this?

I think there are huge opportunities for the UK to lead the way in responsible innovation with data. Finding new ways of securely providing access to data in ways people trust is at the heart of that, involving both tech – for example privacy-enhancing technologies – and governance, such as through data trusts and other institutional models. The biggest opportunities will come from the private sector, government and civil society joining forces – and joining data – to tackle problems that affect us all such as the climate crisis, improving health and wellbeing, and regional inequalities.

 

What is the biggest tech challenge organisations face in ensuring data is at the heart of their digital transformation strategy?

While digital transformation is often exciting, involving intriguing new technologies and compelling user experiences, data is usually viewed with boredom or fear. That makes it hard to invest in or think strategically about. So, the big challenge is to make the connection between the real-world needs and concerns of consumers and businesses, and the data infrastructure – not just data, but also standards, structures and processes – required to satisfy those needs or meet those concerns. Do that, and people begin to see data as a foundational building block for their other goals.

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