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Data principles: plotting a course to data governance

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At the UK Hydrographic Office, we deal with data 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. Each year, we receive 60,000 data sources covering every part of the globe that can be considered marine.

In fact, it’s true to say that we’ve been handling marine data as a core function of our business for 224 years. But it’s also true to say that for most of that time we wouldn’t have considered what we do to be a ‘data management’ activity, as historically we have focused on our end products - which are generally navigational charts or publications.

UKHO staff analysing coastal data sets
UKHO holds a wealth of marine geospatial data from the seabed, to the coast, offshore and beyond

Today we’re finding much wider uses for the breadth of data we hold, beyond just navigation, to help others make use of our oceans in safe and responsible ways.

As such, we have learnt to see what we do in a new light. Where once it was possible to treat information as ‘raw material’ for a production process, we are now managing it as an asset in its own right.

A matter of principle

It’s easy to see data management solely as a technology problem, but in truth it’s not.

Data left to itself does nothing; it doesn’t change, it doesn’t move - at best, all it does is go out of date. The need for governance comes when people start using it for a wide variety of tasks and for a wide variety of reasons. So, the starting point for implementing data governance at the UKHO was not with software or standards but with a set of principles.

Principles are the benchmark by which you can understand how well you are managing your data. They don’t have to be rules; in fact, for an organisation that values empowerment, rules are not very helpful. Instead our principles are guidelines aimed at influencing the way we do things.

Four principles of value, safeguarded, ease of use and fit for purpose
Our four data principles

As guidelines, they had to be ergonomic – designed with people in mind. This was not an activity for a select part of the organisation, they had to be in some way understood by everyone. So, they needed to be memorable and understandable.

They also had to be applicable across a range of data types. We began by looking specifically at what we needed for marine geospatial data, but in the end decided on principles that would apply just as well to any other data we hold as an organisation.

Finally, they needed to be specific to the problem of data management, so we took out things that apply more broadly. For example, “We comply with data legislation” should be taken as a given – as we comply with all legislation!

Keep it simple

A team from our Operations and Technology divisions reviewed what other organisations had decided on as their data principles. We borrowed them where possible and invented where not!

This gave us a long list of principles – much too long for even the most ardent data guru to remember. So, we summarised them into four as follows:

  1. Data is an asset that has value
  2. Data is safeguarded
  3. Data is easy to use
  4. Data is fit for purpose

These four were the main principles we wanted everyone in the organisation to understand and they encompassed many of the other principles that we wanted to include but which would have made the list unwieldy.

For example, under “Data is an asset that has value”, we can store ‘sub-principles’, such as:

  • We source once, use many
  • We maximise the value of our data
  • We retain data ‘as-is’

…and so on. This way, the principles had enough detail to make them meaningful for data owners and custodians, but could also be more widely understood to encourage better data practices for others in the organisation.

The language was important for us too. Our principles reflect things people need to do; so whilst “Data is protected” sounds like a statement of fact, “We own and protect data” gave a sense of something that would not happen unless people took action.

A UKHO staff member presenting the data principles to three other staff members in the UKHO building
We held a launch event at the UKHO to help communicate our new principles to staff

Setting off

Now that we had a set of data principles (and sub-principles) the next stage was to communicate them to the wider organisation.

Earlier this month we launched them to the office; this included creating some graphics for the top four principles and holding an outreach event in our main atrium where we presented the poster shown above.

There is a long way to go before we can declare success; our next steps include auditing our data against these principles and embodying them in our training.

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James Carey is Head of Operational Delivery at the UKHO.

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