Balancing benefit and risk in public service data sharing

April 27, 2018

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By Douglas White, Head of Advocacy, Carnegie UK Trust

This has been a busy week for new data about………well, data.

Two substantial studies have been published during the past seven days on our attitude to and experience of tech. People, Power and Technology: the 2018 Digital Understanding Report by the digital think-tank doteveryone and the 2018 Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes Report by Ofcom, are both wide-ranging and comprehensive pieces of work, drawn from UK-wide population surveys and packed with stats on how we engage with the digital world.

There are many fascinating insights in both reports which merit further attention and discussion. I want to focus on one particular aspect – what the studies tell us about our understanding and views on how data about us is shared.

The recent Facebook and Cambridge Analytica revelations and the forthcoming implementation of GDPR, has placed the concept of data sharing firmly in the public spotlight. As the extent of the data that companies hold about us becomes clearer, we have the opportunity to regain a semblance of control.

Our approach to this complex issue also has profound implications for the future design and delivery of public services – a topic which is the focus of a new report published this week by the Carnegie UK Trust, Involve and Understanding Patient Data, which I’ll say more about later.

It’s clear from both the doteveryone and Ofcom surveys that data sharing is an issue people care about.

doteveryone found that more than 90% of people believe it is important they choose what data they share with companies. Approaching the issue from a slightly different angle, Ofcom highlight that over 40% of internet users are not happy for companies to collect and use their personal information, while a third say that they are content for companies to collect data about them on the proviso that this is not shared with third parties. When certain specific data sharing scenarios are explored, public opinion can be even stronger – according to Ofcom 75% of people with a profile on social media or messaging platforms believe it is unacceptable to share a photo or video of other people without their permission.

While data sharing is an issue that many people have strong feelings on, the research suggests that our understanding about how data is collected and shared, and the implications of this (both positive and negative), is comparatively low. doteveryone’s statistics show that more than 80% of people don’t realise that information can be gathered about them from data that others have shared; 70% don’t understand whether or how free-to-use apps share user data as part of their business model; while nearly half don’t realise that the data they share online influences the adverts they see. Ofcom report that when buying things online, only one in three internet users look for a guarantee that their data won’t be shared.

While much of the recent debate and research has focused on the sharing of data for commercial purposes, there is also a highly important public service aspect to the debate. Data shared between public service providers can, of course, be used to provide better, faster and more responsive services to individuals and communities – an opportunity that many organisations are keen to capitalise on more effectively. But the sharing of data even for public benefit also brings significant risks, including to personal privacy and freedom from stigma.

Data for Public Benefit, a new report by Carnegie, Involve and Understanding Patient Data examines how public service providers weigh up these benefits and risks. Through a series of workshops we found that there are currently significant variations across the country in how these issues are both defined and balanced. We also found that – perhaps unsurprisingly given the figures quoted above – that public service providers lack clarity and confidence in how the public understand and consider data sharing intended for public benefit purposes. All of this means that we are unlikely to be in an optimal position at present in terms of our approach to data sharing for public benefit.

To tackle these challenges our report includes a new 18-question framework to help public service professionals assess the purpose and value of sharing data against the potential for harm. Based on three core tests, that data sharing must be purposeful, proportionate and responsible, the framework also aims to support public service providers to hold more meaningful conversations with the public so that they can build a deeper, more sophisticated understanding of what people really think and want on these issues.

As the doteveryone and Ofcom data shows, it’s only through building this public understanding that we can really unpick the nuances and details of public opinion to reach the best decisions that make the future of data sharing work for everyone.