Bad press about government plans for sharing data continues to emerge—exemplified by the NHS Care.Data fiasco (any takers for sharing your health records with insurance companies?) to reports of HM Revenue and Customs planning to sell personal financial data.
These growing criticisms of big/open/shared data point towards an incipient big data backlash. But whilst concerns need to be considered, greater access to government data is vital in providing better services for beneficiaries.
My work at NPC involves working for increased access to government administrative data (ie, data routinely collected by government departments), so that charitable organisations can measure the impact of their work. Our first success has been the set up of the Justice Data Lab, and we are currently working towards improving access to health, substance misuse and employment data.
You could say I’m biased about the benefits of using government data sets—and I would agree. But this doesn’t mean I’m blind to the attendant concerns. After all, my own personal data is included within these datasets and I too care about how this can and cannot be used.
A report by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that the general public broadly support the use of administrative data by ONS, but only a third are in favour of the private sector using their data. We need to be reassured that data will be used for public good, not profit, and that our anonymity is protected.
This is why I am involved in the Cabinet Office’s data sharing consultation. I believe that shared administrative data can be extremely powerful: consider how much stronger the Justice Data Lab would be if the results not only showed how effective a particular programme was at reducing reoffending, but also whether the programme increased the chances of gaining employment or abstaining from substance misuse, recognising the holistic work of many charities in supporting the reintegration of vulnerable people back into society.
Yet the car crash of Care.data not only threatens emerging work to develop better data sharing by government, it is also often confused with Open data—data that is unrestricted, freely available and accessible to use, much of which can be found on the relatively new data.gov.uk website and encompasses much loved(!) official datasets such as school performance league tables and Indices of Deprivation.
I’ll be speaking more about open data at the How to Measure Outcomes: Practical Tips and Tools on the 4 June, but before I see you there, I must just mention one particularly exciting open data movement. Led by Indigo Trust, Nesta and Nominet Trust, 360 Degree Giving aims to work with funders to publish data about who/what they fund to enable better understanding by grantees, the public and funders themselves of what is being funded and where there are gaps. The more funders become more involved in this project, the clearer the funding landscape will become. With the involvement of big funders such as the Big Lottery and Wellcome Trust among others, it’s hard to see how this initiative can fail to deliver better targeting of funding.
Ours is an age of mass data production. Whilst privacy, security and anonymity need to be safeguarded, this does not need to be in direct conflict with the experimentation and analysis required to unleash the power of data.