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Data and AI

CDE4PS conversations – Alberto Palomo, Chief Data Officer of Spain

January 2023 – Data Spaces and Digital Ecosystems are becoming a greater part of the conversation as many governments begin to navigate their own digital transformations. In 2021, Alberto Palomo-Lozano was appointed the Chief Data Officer by the Federal Government of Spain, joining an existing team leading Central Gov´s IT and driving of the private industries digitalisation.

In this interview, he shares lessons, goals, and observations from the past year with Capgemini Global Offer Leader for Data & AI in the Public Sector, Pierre-Adrien Hanania.

His experiences highlight the importance of what he calls “liquid” data and federated structures, which impact not only technical systems but talent needs and accountability frameworks.

First, tell us a little bit about yourself!

I am originally from Spain, where I completed a Ph.D. in Mathematic Modelling, focusing on Theoretical Physics. This experience led to working on the mathematical framework underlying neural networks, before eventually pivoting to a data science role 7 years ago.

I spent the most recent years working in the US for a subsidiary of a European electricity company. This role Focused on extracting data insights by way of technical ML models, coordinating the interplay of those teams working on the Business and  IT sides, which has been critical in preparing me for my current work as the CDO.

Let’s talk about your past year in the CDO role & some of your goals. For instance, what is your experience with data collaboration in your role, what does it mean to you & how do you plan to tackle it moving forward?

The Data Office was developed not to manage data from various government entities, but to foster ecosystems which can facilitate greater insights by combining this data with cloud technology. Various states, regions, provinces, etc. in Spain are empowered to manage their own data and have the choice of whether or not they’d like to opt into any developments we create in the Data Office, but our goal is to discover how we can really make use of data across many different verticals, by capitalising on common or horizontal methodologies and technologies.

While interoperability and data ecosystems have been around for more than a decade, what we feel is lacking is a horizontal model: a governance system that dictates how to clean, manage and share data, which can then be easily used by other offices and organisations. The CIO of Spain is working on developing a platform to store this data for collaboration.  So, essentially, our goal together is to create a liquid data ecosystem made of federated nodes.

What are the benefits of data sharing and collaboration? As IT company, when we tackle the benefits of data sharing in the public sector, we generally see four key benefits: citizen engagement, cost reduction, insight multiplication, and interoperability (i.e. process efficiency). Do you see similar benefits in your work?

While we’re still at the beginning of these things, we’re working in parallel with the CIO on governance and technology systems. For ministries, there’s the benefit of being able to trace data in the value chain, which can lead to more citizen engagement. For example, the CIO’s office recently released the My Citizen Folder tool, where citizens can browse the information that various governmental departments have collected about them, in a single access point. One hope with this project is to facilitate a greater sense of data ownership by citizens [and be able to engage them even more in these processes].

Again, while interoperability between government administrations has been around for more than a decade, what hasn’t been possible is the ability to: merge and collate large datasets to be able to extract insights. For example, we may have electricity usage data for our citizens, but without additional variables such as the weather, etc. we can’t begin to understand and draw insights from this information.

“We like to think of this new model as a liquid data ecosystem with federated nodes.”

Describe the Spanish Context: Why is the CDO role important right now?

While France, the UK, and the USA all have different forms of government-appointed data officers, our priorities tend to be different, and our incentives are different based on what we hope to address. In Spain, we have a strong political will and heavy investment has been made in developing the data economy.

What this office hopes to accomplish is closing the gap between public administrations and private industry in terms of data usage and collaboration.

I’d like to react with a quote from an EU policy officer I find relevant, “The safe option is to not share [data].” Basically, if you stay at home: you do nothing, you commit no crimes, etc. It is an easy way to be sure you’re on the right side, but if you want to create a digital economy, you need to actually upskill [workers], create digital playgrounds, and make data collaboration the ‘safe’ way to be efficient.

You’re absolutely right. Many private companies are more hesitant to share or take on risks of data sharing because they are afraid of losing their competitive edge — they see data as business value generation. When they say, “Data will never leave our systems, full stop” because of privacy concerns, we want to show the private sector that data can leave their systems and still remain secure.

“Sharing data in a reckless way is easy, but sharing data in a sovereign and secure way is complicated.”

The legal, technical, governance, and even business perspectives must be considered when looking at the value of a given set of data. These are major reasons why there is also a talent shortage related to this.

Lastly, I observe that there’s still a struggle to measure the costs and returns of working on these big data projects. Even though people have been working on these types of projects for a long time, there still seems to be confusion over how to measure the ROI of these efforts.

What is your vision for the future of data collaboration in Spain?

The goal is to create federated data ecosystems! There is no way to consolidate all data; so developing nodes that require as little governance as possible, and allows them their own flexibility, is our main approach. We want to focus on grassroots growth, so that our Data Office can act more like a consultant for the public sector, instead of a “doer”.

Our aim is the concept of “digital sovereignty.” An example of this is when residents used their own Geiger counters to identify radiation around Fukushima in Japan. This data was shared as part of an open-source project and was used by public and private entities, alike. This level of empowerment is an excellent case study for us as we make progress.

This user-centric development of the data ecosystem – where users are not only citizens but also organisations – aims to incentivise the private sector to participate and address governance questions for the public sector. We believe that if we set up soft governance, providing the minimum set of rules to participate in the data economy, it’s only a matter of time until their fears diminish, and they recognise the value behind sharing data. –Bringing this level of engagement is the main job of this office.

We don’t expect to have a thriving data space on day one – we aim to build little by little, in iterations. Right now, the biggest challenge we have is definitely understanding the incentives of the private sector, and mobilising an end-to-end representation of the value chain, for otherwise we won’t be able to articulate a winning and innovative value proposition.

It’s interesting – usually in the public sector we have questions of governance, and in the private sector it’s more a question of incentivisation. Do you have examples or thoughts on facing challenges around data monetisation? It’s something that both private and public sectors face.

This is a challenging topic, which we won’t have the (final) answer probably for a while.

However, we believe the key is liquidity: having different people interacting despite having different governance models, and evaluating the value of a data set through these case studies. How valuable a given data set is, is almost always based on the use case and the context for that organisation, business, or individual. This is why liquidity is critical, different stakeholders shall realise their value in different ways.

“Here, at the Spanish National Data Office, we don’t try to give people answers, we try to provide forums and resources for people to come to conclusions on their own.”

Can you share some other challenges you face today in your quest? One example brought up by a National Care Data Lead in previous discussions was about the need for a better interlock between technology, the organisation, and policy making. And that data and innovations leaders in organisations need to challenge policymakers more often.

“Data-driven policy making“ is one of the key aspects of the Spanish Secretary of State’s (for Digitalisation and AI) vision.

We have some strong advocates for this approach in our government: the Ministry of Justice, for example. While they’re still at the beginning of their journey, they have a data office and are focused on developing “data-driven justice” initiatives. I think we will get to practical experiences with data-driven policy-making in the next few years.

Another challenge is that: while many organisations are eager to talk about AI, most must eventually address infrastructure questions for the AI part of result in meaningful before they can begin. In this sense, the value proposition of these advanced paradigms (like the one of federated data spaces) does not seem to be widely understood, but they can be truly game-changing as far as drivers of downstream value.

“The value must be considered for the entire value chain, not just technical mechanisms. A multidisciplinary perspective is key!”

Lastly, talk about how you collaborate with your peers in other countries.

One way we learn from and collaborate with others is through the pan-European project, Gaia-X, for which Spain is chairing the Governmental Advisory Board this year. This is a combination of different representatives across Europe hoping to develop the “next generation of data infrastructure: an open, transparent and secure digital ecosystem.”

Something that our government is strongly advocating for, which the EU Commission also supports, is coordinating The development of the data economy with the Cloud  (i.e. as a service)–  This is the playing ground of industrial data spaces. We ask ourselves the question: how can we provide feedback from data to infrastructure, and from infrastructure to data? So, while this is not a cloud project, it is an attempt to add a greater meaning  (and cross-coordination) to the existing data initiatives in each country.