Birmingham is well placed to be at the heart of Britain’s digital future in the same way that it was a trailblazer during the Industrial Revolution, according Government Minister Francis Maude.
Mr Maude, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, was speaking in advance of a seminar to celebrate the city’s commitment to open government, open data and digital technologies.
At the event organised by Digital Birmingham Mr Maude said he would be urging small and medium sized business to use increasing amounts of open data to make the most of commercial opportunities offered by the ever-changing digital world.
“Data is a raw material that can be used to create new products and services,” said Mr Maude.
“It is particularly appropriate in Birmingham, a city that was a part of the Industrial Revolution, with entrepreneurs taking raw materials of iron and steel and turning them into products no one dreamed could be made.
“What we are seeing now is the next generation of entrepreneurs using raw materials in the shape of data and making products no one thought was possible.
“This will put Birmingham at the leading edge of the new Industrial Revolution.”
And the Minister said he believed the process was already well underway, in part because of pioneering partnerships being forged between the public and private sectors in the city.
“I have known Birmingham for a long time – I was a West Midlands MP,” he added.
“What I see in Birmingham today, which it lost for a long time, is a revival of that spirit that made it such a great city in the 19th century – the city government getting together with the private sector, with entrepreneurs with a sense of civic pride and commitment that in the past made Birmingham great.”
Birmingham examples of the public service and commercial use of open data flagged up during Mr Maude’s visit included Birmingham’s Civic Dashboard, which gives greater awareness of how the city council is responding to people’s needs and wishes and Integrated Transport Planning, a specialist consultancy on integrated, sustainable transport planning and research.
Mr Maude also pledged the Government would continue its commitment to making ever more data freely available.
“It is a big thing, a defining point for the Government,” he said. “Opening up data allowing people to scrutinise. It’s easy for politicians to be very much in favour in opposition but enthusiasm tends to wane in government. But we have stuck with it and taken it further.
“It enables people to hold governments to account in terms of what we are spending money on and opens up the workings of government.
“An example is crime mapping where people can plot an investigation from when someone is arrested to being taken to court. It will bring pressure to bear on those who run the criminal justice system, police and crime commissioners. Accountability is crucial.
“As we open up public services in health and education people want to have choice when they use public services. It enables people to make choices in a much more informed way.
“Open data can also support jobs, growth and new businesses. In addition it can promote social growth and bring communities together to work together to take charge of their destiny.”
Mr Maude’s visit to the seminar was one of a series of events taking place in the city this week on a digital theme.
It followed on from the launch of Birmingham’s Virgin Media Pioneers.
The Virgin Media initiative, which is backed by Digital Birmingham, will support fledging young entrepreneurs kick start their own businesses.
Virgin Media Pioneers is a free-to-join online community that will connect young entrepreneurial talent to a network of peer-to-peer support, video blogs, TV series and expert professional mentoring and advice.
Digital Birmingham hopes the initiative will unlock the talentm and ambition of young people throughout the West Midlands, helping support the next generation of digital entrepreneurs.
Digital Birmingham’s support for Virgin Media Pioneers forms part of Birmingham City Council’s ambition to get 2,012 digital champions across the city.
The programme, which will launch in April, is part of Race Online 2012, a nationwide challenge to get more people online headed up by lastminute.com founder Martha Lane Fox.
The Government is also set to relaunch data.gov.uk within the next few months, which Mr Maude said was “already the largest global resource of its kind” in a bid to enable businesses to access free data more readily.
The Minister also pointed to the creation of the Open Data Institute later this year, an organisation which will receive £10 million of Government funding and work with entrepreneurs, businesses, funders and academics to help maximise the commercial value of open data.
“I am delighted Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the worldwide web and who is an expert on open data and Professor Nigel Shadbolt are going to be on the board,” said Mr Maude.
“We have promoted it but thought it was important there should be a body independent of government that develops it. This is the way of the future.”
Looking to the future, Mr Maude sounded a warning note about failing to embrace the digital world and promised a seismic shift in Government provision of online services.
“Societies and economies who hold back will find themselves disadvantaged,” he said.
“In the world of the future, services will be digital by default and public services that can be delivered online should only be delivered online. It will enable things to be done at a fraction of the cost and services to be provided to a better standard.
“We have to embrace this, but people demand services that will give them more choice, more access and demand quality.
“That is the challenge of the data revolution, to meet these challenges and do more for less money.”