https://cdei.blog.gov.uk/2020/02/13/trustworthy-data-sharing/

Trustworthy data-sharing

More or less?

It’s easy to argue for more data sharing in the public sector. This would enable more innovation, make it easier to deliver personalised services and make the government more efficient. Right?

But what about privacy? The more the government knows about individual citizens the more powerful the state can become. And what about individual autonomy? If the government is sharing our data and using the insights to make decisions that affect our lives, what about our freedom to choose what is best for us?

So if we are to allow the government to share more data, it’s vital that this is done in a way that is trustworthy and acceptable to us. Of course there are also times when we just expect our data to be shared. We all know how frustrating it can be to keep having to give different bits of the the public sector the same information.

Getting this right, is not straightforward. The CDEI’s role is to contribute balance and nuance to the discussion - and advise on the best way forward. To that end, we’ll soon be publishing a paper on ethical data-sharing, and this blog will give an overview of some of the themes and issues we’ve explored.

A balancing act

To make good decisions and provide good services to citizens, government agencies need to use data about citizens and share that data across government agencies. But this can only be acceptable if the risks of government misuse of data are properly controlled. 

The recent developments in AI make this dilemma a pressing concern. To maximise the opportunities presented by AI and data driven technology, a step-change in the way data is shared and used is required. The potential benefits are significant, including improved diagnostics, more efficient infrastructure and personalised public services. Yet an increase in data sharing also poses risks and tests our existing governance systems. 

The CDEI is tasked with evaluating frameworks for ethical data sharing. Initially, we’re focusing on the flow of personal information held by the public sector, exploring how different projects, which have successfully shared data for specific purposes, have overcome the barriers they’ve faced. But more importantly, we want to focus on citizen trust and addressing public acceptability.

Without adequate safeguards, the collection and use of personal data risks increasing the power of government and creating greater power imbalances between the citizen and the state. Trade-offs are required which reflect our democratic values, wider public acceptability and a shared vision of a data driven society. 

How have we approached the paper?

The paper looks at five different case studies from across the public sector, to identify the range of barriers which inhibit data-sharing. Our case studies include:

  • The sharing of the national pupil database with approved suppliers
  • The sharing of the VAT Register with credit reference agencies
  • Evaluation of the Troubled Families initiative
  • The sharing of patients’ GP records
  • The collaboration between the Royal Free and Google Deepmind

We have found that barriers to data sharing can generally be placed into three broad categories - technical, legal and cultural.

But most crucially, the one thing underpinning all of the barriers encountered was the issue of public trust, and a lack of clarity about public acceptability. While profoundly important it tends not to be the focus of initiatives designed to drive more data sharing.

Any exploration of public sector data sharing needs to address the technical, legal and cultural aspects. But it must also look beyond these and address the ethical issues at stake. Our paper will set out the key barriers to data sharing in more detail, explore the topic of public trust and lay the ground for further work.

What’s next? 

Such a challenge is not unique to the UK or the public sector. Governments, and private organisations, are all having to consider how to maximise the value of data in a way that is trustworthy and practical. 

Over the coming year, the CDEI will consider how to drive more trustworthy data sharing. We will collaborate with other public sector organisations seeking to share data for valuable purposes, but in a way that is also publicly acceptable.

In particular, we want to focus on the potential of giving citizens greater control of data about them. The CDEI wants to consider whether this could address trust, while also encouraging more valuable data sharing. Second, we intend to help establish clear definitions and processes for public interest uses of data. This would focus on cases where  there is an issue of public interest or potential public harm which cannot be properly addressed without sharing the the data held by the government. In these cases, there is an ethical imperative to share the data. Our paper, which will be published later this month, will flesh out these two themes in more detail.

If you have questions about the CDEI’s work - please get in touch by leaving a comment or sending us an email on cdei@cdei.gov.uk.

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