Lively debates on data trust at this year's political party conferences

Written by Roeland Beerten & Olivia Varley-Winter on . Posted in Features

The RSS has been glad to once again promote the importance of data and statistics in public policy at this year's party conferences, following our involvement in fringe events last year. Together with IpsosMORI we hosted two fringe events at the Conservative and Labour conferences on the topic of 'Who do you trust with your data?'

Each event was attended by about 50 people, who listened to the views from two panels of MPs, media and public policy experts. The events also formally launched the RSS' Data Manifesto, which promotes three important uses for data and statistics in government: firstly for better policy making, secondly to strengthen democracy and trust, and thirdly to drive prosperity. It offers ten recommendations and policy lines that have been developed over the past several years within the RSS, and was publicised widely across both events among MPs and other attendees, through Twitter and through face-to-face discussions.

Bobby Duffy, Managing Director of the Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute, introduced each event with an overview of recent research findings on public attitudes to the use and sharing of their data, produced in partnership with the RSS. He highlighted that in general (and on an un-prompted basis), the public is less worried about how companies handle their personal data than they are about other issues, such as receiving good customer service. However, when prompted, 'losing or failing to keep safe my personal data' shoots up to the top three reasons most likely to cause them to shop somewhere else.

From the research, Bobby also presented that trust in most institutions to use data appropriately appears to be lower than the level of trust in them in general (the only exception was the British government, for which general trust was lower). He commented that this is atypical as, more usually, the public expresses more trust in specific functions of institutions than in the institution as a whole. This apparent 'data trust deficit' can be seen in the chart below. Bobby also highlighted that safeguards of personal privacy are important to the public. That assertion and discussion of these leads to improvement in support for data-sharing within government - for this he cited both the poll research with the RSS, and prior ‘data dialogues’ research with the Office for National Statistics.

{mbox:Features/data-trust.jpg|width=400|height=277|caption=Click to enlarge|title=The 'data trust deficit'}

At the Labour conference in Manchester, Chi Onwurah MP started the panel discussion by saying that for many people 'digital discomfort' outstrips awareness of the opportunities of data sharing. She said Labour wants to construct a framework for a more empowering relationship of people with their data.

Martha Gill from the Economist outlined the benefits of sharing health record data for research and commissioning, and said that Scotland offers good examples of improved healthcare outcomes due to the relative ease of health data sharing there. She did think however there should be stronger safeguards for data privacy, including prison sentences for misuse of data.

Meg Hillier MP started by saying she was very supportive of the agenda for more open data to be published in machine-readable format by government, but admitted that parliament itself isn't very good at opening up its data. She saw data as central to the management of government, and said it should be used more effectively in policy making.

Randeep Ramesh, social affairs editor for the Guardian, spoke critically of the handling of England’s programme in particular, which was intended to link records of GP care to those in hospitals and records of care more broadly. He said one of the key issues for governments is that the safeguards which need to be in place from the start of data collection are being considered too late in the process. 

At the Conservative's conference in Birmingham, the panel discussion was opened by Sarah Wollaston MP, who also focused on, saying that if it can be launched successfully it will be of huge value for medical research and for public health. She thought the issue of data ownership was key, and said that legally citizens should own their health data, rather than (as is currently the case) the Secretary of State. In her view the initial failure of the initiative was due to too little care for public opinion as to who data should be shared with, such as an instance in which patients’ hospital data was sold to insurers. She said there is a need for more informed discussion of specific cases such as sharing data with pharmaceutical companies, as they conduct the majority of medical research and the public stand to benefit from this. She also thought that better data-security is needed and said cloud computing undermines this.

Eddie Copeland (Head of Technology Policy, Policy Exchange) continued the discussion, saying that current consent models for data use are 'dead'. He argued that people don't currently understand what they sign up to, and urged for new thinking about how organisations engage with individuals on data consent. He said that in order for data to generate value it needs to be shared, and described himself as a technology optimist for this, commenting in response to Wollaston that cloud computing can be made secure.

The final panel member in Birmingham, Bernard Jenkin MP argued that individuals should recognise the benefits of data sharing as long as it happens with appropriate safeguards. He compared the current digital age, where data about individuals are plentiful and sometimes publicly available, to people living in small villages, where individuals know a lot about each other through hearsay. He also agreed with some in the audience that certain types of data, such as the Postcode Address File (PAF) or Land Registry Data, need to be freely available - he said the PAF being wrapped up in the privatisation of Royal Mail was 'one privatisation too far'.

In the concluding remarks at both events, Bobby Duffy said that data trust among the general public needs to improve through positive, informed discussion. He concluded that the current - often acrimonious - public arguments on data security standards between private companies and governmental organisations are corrosive to building public trust.

Bernard Jenkin Labour Party Conservative Party Data privacy Data sharing Chi Onwurah

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