Data has played a pivotal role in society’s response to Covid-19. For many, the experience has shown just how much can be achieved through effective and purposeful data sharing. But without the urgency of the pandemic, the public will need greater reassurances that their data is being handled appropriately, warns the chair of the UK’s Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI).
Data proved essential to society’s response to the pandemic. Aggregated healthcare data has allowed policymakers, businesses and individuals to track the status of the successive waves and plan accordingly. Data also helped local authorities plan and deliver public services in response to evolving needs, whether it was joining up datasets to identify potentially vulnerable local residents in need of support or real-time data sharing between emergency services.
These measures were made possible in part because they had the tacit support of the public, says Roger Taylor, chair of the CDEI, which advises the government on data usage. But it is not guaranteed that this support will last beyond the pandemic. “During the pandemic, the urgency to deal with these situations has meant that the public have given the government their support to go ahead,” says Taylor. “What we do not have huge confidence in [is whether] the government can expect that to just continue.”
It is not that citizens value data privacy over effective public services. A survey by the CDEI found that two-thirds of UK citizens would be happy for local councils to use personal data to predict traffic jams, for example, or to identify young people at risk of domestic violence.
They are more sensitive about their data passing into private hands: only 15% would be happy for their council to sell their data to private companies. But citizens’ chief cause for concern, the CDEI found, is in the lack of transparency and governance over the usage of their data, as cited by 54% of respondents.
“The primary driver [of hesitancy to share data] is whether you believe that there are rules and appropriate governance in place,” says Taylor. “It’s more important than whether or not you are generally optimistic about technology; it’s more important than your age or your demographic.”
Effective data governance to unlock value
Establishing effective data governance, Taylor argues, is therefore essential if the benefits of data-sharing that governments enjoyed during the pandemic will continue. “We have got to do the work on getting the governance right,” he says. “The public will not give government[s] permission to do this if that work is not undertaken at the same speed and with the same urgency as implementing their data-driven solutions.”
Important governance measures include consistent rules across departments and jurisdictions, user-controlled records that offer people absolute clarity on what data is being shared with whom, and clear pathways for public engagement.
These measures will become all the more important as government departments adopt more sophisticated technology. Artificial intelligence could be invaluable in delivering public services to those who need them most, but the public is sceptical and will need reassurance that their data is not being abused.
In the UK, there is a clear drive from the government to build on the data-sharing momentum of the pandemic, including partnerships with the private sector. But Taylor fears that energy is not matched by an urgency to address the trustworthiness and transparency of data usage.
It’s crucial, he says, that governments take this opportunity to iron out the details of the governance now. “Data can be potentially incredibly helpful, and also potentially incredibly damaging, and gives people the power to manipulate,” Taylor says. “What we need to establish is how are these things governed so that you can be confident that you know what’s going on and they are done in ways that are beneficial.”
Home page photo: The UK government’s new test and trace application is displayed on a handheld device. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Katharine Swindells is a data journalist at New Statesman Media Group, writing on technology and lifestyle.