Data Labs - Our Data Labs project aims to open up government administrative data to the social sector. NPC

Data, data everywhere

Last week saw a bit of buzz about use of public data, some positive and some negative. In the US, researchers highlighted how sharing patient data could lead to medical advances. Meanwhile, The Guardian worried that we’re heading for a ‘Facebook government’ that erodes citizen privacy (which we felt compelled to respond to).

We’re pleased that a light is being shone upon both the opportunities and the risks of using public data, an area we’ve long focused on. But the reality is that we do not have to compromise our privacy to realise the benefits of public data.

Reaping the benefits of data—safely

Take the Justice Data Lab—designed by NPC and run by the Ministry of Justice—which enables organisations to understand the impact of their services on reoffending rates. Charities submit details of their service users to government statisticians, who link these with government data to identify outcomes at a group level. No personal data ever leaves the service, and all individual-level data is destroyed after the review period.

The Justice Data Lab shows how charities can access data analysis without risking the privacy of individual service users. So charities using the service can use their results to improve their services. And because the results are made public, the whole sector can learn what works in reducing reoffending.

At NPC, we think that this type of access to government-held data can help us to understand the nature of social problems and the impact of services set up to address them. So we’re delighted that, following the growing success of the Justice Data Lab, momentum is building for similar data labs in the health, employment and education sectors:

Building momentum for better use of data

We recently co-wrote a letter with ERSA—the representative body for the employment support sector—to the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Damian Green MP, in which we continued our argument for an employment data lab. Last week we received a positive reply confirming support for the idea. We are also having positive conversations with relevant parties about the idea of data labs for the education sector.

Meanwhile, our new paper Freeing up health analysis outlines why a health data lab is needed, how it would work and what it would achieve. Charities working in the health system currently struggle to assess their impact on preventing avoidable illnesses and hospital admissions. A health data lab would help to change this so that charities could understand and improve their work to support people’s health. It would also help create a powerful evidence base for what works—which could help to improve decision-making (and potentially money-saving) across the charity sector and the NHS.

Maintaining a balanced arguement using data for good

Last week, our CEO Dan Corry gave evidence to the Lords Select Committee on Charities on charity sustainability. He told them that the government must open up its data in this way in order to support charities’ work to alleviate social problems. We plan to continue to make this case, and hope that government seizes the opportunity to help us better understand the interventions that work.

The data lab model is one way that we can harness the power of data without risking individual privacy. Beyond this, we need a balanced debate which carefully weighs up the benefits and the risks of using public data. As data sharing becomes more commonplace, it is vital that the right safeguards are in place to keep our personal data safe. But we should not let fears of a ‘Facebook government’ stop us from using data for good.

To discuss our work on data further, please get in touch with Katie Boswell via Find out more about our Data Labs project and get updates on Twitter via @NPCthinks and #DataLabs.