Data is a UK success story – but more action is needed for true revolution

A new report by an influential government committee says the UK’s data economy is a success story – but calls for more openness of official databases to increase innovation.

The Big Data Dilemma, published by the Science and Technology Committee, also warns that existing data is nowhere near fully exploited, with companies estimated to be analysing just 12% of their data.

It wants to see the Government do more to make its databases open and to share them with businesses, and across Government departments to improve and develop new public services, estimating that 58,000 jobs could be created and £216bn contributed to the economy (2.3% of GDP) over a five-year period if this and other steps are taken.

The committee noted that distrust arising from concerns about privacy and security is often well-founded and must be resolved for further growth to continue.

Nicola Blackwood MP, Chair of the Committee, said: “We are living in the data age. ‘Big Data’ is driving a revolution in the speed and extent of the data applications that are shaping all aspects of our economy and our day-to-day lives. The use of ‘big data’ is already bringing big benefits. Exploited further, big data will be transformative, unlocking new life-saving research and creating unimagined opportunities for innovation. The Government has a role in this, in sharing and opening up its own data.

“But big data is also raising legitimate concerns about privacy and the way personal data is being used and sometimes re-used in ways which re-identify previously anonymised data. There is often well-founded distrust about this and about privacy which must be resolved by industry and Government.

A ‘Council of Data Ethics’ should be created to explicitly address these consent and trust issues head on. And the Government must signal that it is serious about protecting people’s privacy by making the identifying of individuals by de-anonymising data a criminal offence.”

The committee also warns that there is more to do to breakdown Government departmental data silos, to bring data together in order to further improve public services, as well as to improve data quality. It recommends that the government should make more datasets available both to decision-makers in Government and to external users and establish a framework for auditing the quality of data within Government departments and identifying data-sharing opportunities to break departmental data silos.

The failure of the ‘care.data’ initiative, for sharing patients’ health data, shows that patients’ consent cannot be taken for granted, it said, urging the government to learn the lessons of similar, more successful, scheme in Scotland.

The committee was clear that businesses and governments that communicate most effectively with the public, giving the citizen greater control in their data transactions by using simple and layered ‘privacy notices’, and allowing the consumer to decide exactly how far they are willing to trust each data-holder, will gain most.

They said: “If informed, freely-given consent is the bedrock of a trusting relationship between a consumer and a data-holder, then it must always be part of that deal that consent freely-given can also be freely-withdrawn.”

Nicola Blackwood MP added: “Seeking to balance the potential benefits of big data and people’s justified privacy concerns will not be straightforward. A debate is needed at this critical juncture, now that the new EU data protection regulation has been agreed.”

 

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