Unlocking the potential of AI in the UK public sector

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In the ever-evolving landscape of artificial intelligence (AI) and data modernisation, the UK stands on the brink of significant transformation. AI can have a profound impact on the public sector, but DDaT leaders are emphasising the need for a strategic and collaborative approach to harnessing the technology for societal good.

Lisa Allen, former Director of Data and Services at the Open Data Institute, highlights the growing awareness and application of AI within UK public services. Collaboration among skilled digital and data professionals is vital to maximising the benefits of AI. "We’ve got some phenomenal academics in this country that are looking in those areas," Allen says, emphasising the need for collective efforts to ensure AI serves the public effectively. She urges emphasis on leveraging AI's capabilities while being cautious about potential biases inherent in data.

Building fairness into AI

As ever when dealing with public sector data issues, fairness and transparency are key considerations. Pauline Yau, UK & Ireland Director at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, is optimistic about the transformative potential of AI for public sector organisations. However, she cautions, "You've got to check the provenance of that data," highlighting the importance of understanding the sources and historical context of data to avoid biases. Ensuring the integrity of data is crucial for deriving accurate and fair insights from AI.

While there is now real momentum building behind public sector AI, data leaders are also urging caution, pointing out that current projects such as large language models, while impressive, are prone to mistakes. They warn of the risks of uncritically accepting AI outputs, and emphasise the need for continual improvement and critical evaluation of these models.

Tackling the efficiency challenge

In the public sector, where the management of finite resources is a constant challenge, AI can play a pivotal role in optimising resource allocation and efficient handling of vast amounts of data, believes Matt Armstrong-Barnes, Chief Technology Officer for AI at HPE. “How do I use AI to focus in on some of the massive volumes of data that we've got, to allow us to focus more effectively? It’s AI and human beings working together, where AI has the capability to sift through vast amounts of information. It can make predictions on the information that they're gathering, and help human beings to say, don't look over there. Look over here." 

Building technical capability

But how prepared is the UK public sector for the computational demands of large-scale AI? In November 2023, it was announced that the University of Bristol had been awarded £225m of Government investment to fund the new Isambard-AI supercomputer. AI Isambard supercomputer

The system will be the UK’s most powerful supercomputer, capable of carrying out 200 quadrillion calculations per second. Isambard-AI will offer computing capacity for researchers and industry to make AI-driven breakthroughs in fields such as robotics, big data, climate research, and drug discovery.

In order to exploit those technical opportunities, technology investment strategies need to be considered with end goals in mind, suggests Lisa Allen. She stresses the importance of outcome-focused data strategies and advocates planning desired outcomes first, only then determining how data and technology can achieve those goals. "Often when we talk about data, or technology, we start with the tech or the tools or the infrastructure. We don't start with - what's the outcome we want?" she says. 

Allen highlights the efforts of the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) in establishing foundational building blocks for data quality and accessibility. She believes that tackling common challenges will require joint efforts and shared solutions. "The biggest challenge will be what that long term view looks like of how you join it all together.”

Russell Macdonald, Chief Technologist for the Public Sector at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, highlights the exponential growth of data across the UK. He envisions data as "the lifeblood of the nation," vital for both economic development and societal progress. He also advocates for a cohesive approach to data management, likening the UK to a "house of data" where insights are waiting to be discovered and utilised.

This article is based on Episode 2 of "House of Data" a documentary series by Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Watch this and the rest of the series via the banner below.

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