ODI Leeds

Ofcom - driven by consumers

In the famous quote from Benjamin Franklin 'nothing in this world is said to be certain, except death and taxes.' We could also add 'and problems with broadband or mobile provider, resulting in lost service and being overcharged.' It's a bit of a mouthful but certainly relevant to all of us at some point. Those that move house regularly will have felt the sting of missed engineer appointments and the pain of days with no broadband, whilst the mobile-savvy could be missing out on better coverage and better deals by sticking with the same mobile service. These problems have greater ramifications than just saving money - an unreliable internet connection can greatly affect a small business, or make things harder for the socially isolated to reach out to others, or be a barrier to education and skills. It is in no one's interest for these problems to persist and there are people out there who want to make things better.

Ofcom is the communications regulator in the UK and as such their remit is quite diverse, covering TV, radio, video-on-demand, fixed-line phones, mobile phones, and the airwaves over which all these things are made possible. You may have encountered or heard of Ofcom via their complaints handling but this is not the only thing they do. Their principal duty is to further the interest of citizens and consumers, helping them get the best from their communication services by encouraging healthy competition and protecting against dodgy practices.

They have already seen several of their recommendations put in to practice, such as the cutting of line-rental costs for million of customers who take only a landline package and the introduction of automatic compensation from some of the UK's biggest broadband providers for delays to service and missed appointments. Getting these recommendations to be accepted is no easy task. In their duty to keep competition fair and healthy, Ofcom have to make decisions that not everyone agrees with, such as the decision to limit the amount of airwaves that any one company can own for the impending 5G auction.

There are ultimately some things that can't be addressed (yet) because there isn't enough data about the current situation. You wouldn't go on an adventure without a map and some provisions, right?

Data can provide incredible insights and power innovative services and apps. Just look at CityMapper. Working with us at ODI Leeds, Ofcom want to see what their own data could reveal or create - tools for planning, strategy to reach the most isolated communities, or use cases to push for further data release. Amongst these possibilities lies an opportunity to standardise a way of measuring 'connectivity' and perhaps even build the definitions of 'good coverage' and 'bad coverage.' This kind of data can be influential for infrastructure projects but also for SMEs and community groups.

The Ofcom innovation workshop on Thursday 15 March is designed to get conversations started about the future of data for Ofcom. When we spoke to them, they outlined what they wanted to get from the day and how they wanted to engage with people:

The Innovation Workshop is about data and what we can all do with it, ultimately to improve the lives of consumers and citizens. We want this to be an exploratory and collaborative conversation. We're interested in all your ideas - things you may already be working on and things you can imagine doing in the future. We're in listening mode. What we hope you'll get out of it is a better idea of what data is already available and the chance to collaborate with other experts on possible opportunities for this or other data in future. Equally it's about establishing ongoing collaborative relationships, so that the kind of dialogue we have today isn't something that ends on this day, but continues into the future.

They are honest about the focus for the innovation workshop - data and innovation. They can't make promises about the data they can release, either on the day or in the future (and you'll see why in a moment). And whilst they are always open to conversations about their policy work, they won't be talking about it at the innovation workshop.

So what is the current data playground like?

Ofcom already has an Open Data policy - that we release data openly where possible. We release it on our own website and via data.gov.uk. This promotes innovation and research in the industry generally. A wide range of third parties take it up and many of the benefits flow to consumers.

The data we have comes from different places. Some, for example is our own market research. A lot of the data we have comes from industry. Some data is straightforward to release. Some can't be released, because it is personal or too commercially sensitive. Or, it has been collected for a particular purpose, using legal powers which restrict its use.

Often, we're interested in going further with what we collect and release. Equally, we are interested in what data is not useful. Sometimes we need to know more about the possible benefits from data release, as essentially we may need to do a decent cost-benefit assessment before changing our approach. The more we can understand the use cases for different data sets, the better we can plan our overall data strategy. So while we may not be able to promise new data sets right away, what we can promise is to listen to all your ideas and to build them in to our future thinking.