Data protection day: A time for celebration and reflection

By Rosario Piazza 28 January 2020 5 minute read

As uncertain as the future may seem, it is somehow reassuring to know that the recent changes in the political landscape and the ever-troubled relationship with the EU are unlikely to affect what has been one of the most significant achievement in the protection of human rights in recent history—the GDPR regulation. Part of me can’t help but think that the protection of personal information is likely to be one of the most important legacy of the time. As citizens and country as a whole, we have been active contributors of the EU policy making, particularly in consideration of the progress made in relation to the safeguarding of privacy.

How has GDPR changed the way we use data?

GDPR day provides an opportunity for reflection—to look at what has been the main contributions made by the data protection regulations. GDPR has increased awareness and improved our understanding of how personal data is treated and processed. Furthermore, by regulating data processing, GDPR has been promoting the need to rethink and increase service users’ trust, while encouraging data sharing and re-usage. GDPR’s primary driving factors have been to give citizens back control of their personal data to simplify the regulatory environment and to highlight the benefit of data re-use

GDPR is designed to inform and protect both users and service providers by strengthening citizens’ rights in the digital age. But these regulations are often perceived as obstacles and restrictions, however they give us the means to re-think the dynamics between data subjects, controllers and processors. It is also important to remember that these regulations exist to encourage service providers to think how user experience can be improved. These aspects carry even more weight, if we think about the range of support and services that the social sector provides to those in need.

What role can GDPR play in enabling beneficiary data (i.e. socio-economic, engagement, feedback, outcome and impact) to become even more crucial in shaping what good service provision and social change look like? There are three key opportunities for the social sector:

Data standards and sharing

The first opportunity is around the importance of data standards and, intrinsically, how cross-sectoral knowledge sharing can be improved. This is relevant not simply to inform how systems are configured and operate within the social sector, but also to understand how data is recorded, processed and shared and, ultimately, what effective impact measurement looks like. The call for data standards, however, does not imply that the sector should adhere to one set of rules or measures. Rather the need to harmonise how data is collected, processed and published in such a way that it will increasingly break down the barriers that stop the sector from understanding what difference has been made to  the lives of those served by it, and how standardised data can be used to inform strategy and decision making.

Opening up data

The second opportunity would require reigniting the need for open data. There appears to be still some controversy on how protecting data and opening data can pursue the same goal. Some believe that GDPR is controversial or even obstructive on the open data topic. This is not accurate as GDPR, on the contrary, provides us with options. Firstly, data subjects must always give their clear and explicit consent to the processing of their data. Therefore, no personal data can be published for re-use without the consent of the affected party. Alternatively, data can be anonymised by removing personally identifiable information from dataset. Therefore, data can no longer be referred to as “personal data” and is no longer subject to GDPR. This means that by ensuring that any personal information is gathered, processed and shared in a transparent, informed and law-abiding manner, GDPR regulations provide the means to address and lower the barrier to the publication and use of open data. So, what if charities and funders become to be more open and transparent about their impact? What if social sector organisations were to start publishing more regularly and openly their anonymised data, for instance? Surely this would unlock the type of knowledge necessary to understand what works and what does not.

Fair use of personal data

The most significant opportunity of all is the role that the social sector can play in paving the road for fair use of personal data. One that can unequivocally benefit individuals and communities by giving them full, informed control and overview of what happens to their personal information, and how this is pivotal to driving both service improvement and social change. We believe that the sector faces the significant yet exciting challenge to show to private and public service providers how it should be done.

By identifying standards, opening more data, increasing user involvement and identifying new, GDPR compliant uses of data, charities and funders can truly unlock the intrinsic power of data, to create services designed by the people for the people; and make a significant contribution to the lives of many.


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