Opinion: Using data safely for the public good | News

The Innovation and Technology Network Strip

The Innovation and Technology Network


Opinion: Using data safely for the public good

By Stephanie Morphew, Researcher and Content Strategist, Solvous

We are all drunk on data and its promises to solve the problems we face twice as fast for half the cost.

In a set of blows possibly even more disruptive than a combined ten years of austerity, benefit reform and the credit crunch, governments and providers of essential services like housing are going to need to critically evaluate the social safety net and application of data to shore it up for the future.

Increasingly in the UK, algorithms and sophisticated analytics are being implemented to risk assess and score individuals, becoming prevalent in housing for functions such as assessing tenancy affordability, addressing fraud, or safeguarding communities.

Across local authorities in the UK there is a concerted effort to compile and combine large bodies of data to enable greater decision-making capabilities (think Bristol’s Integrated Analytical Hub, or Camden’s Resident Index.) Research conducted by Data Justice Lab found that austerity is a key driving force behind the adoption of these data solutions.

Key to moving forward is understanding that these aren’t neutral tools.

To take one example, in the social housing sector, analytics tools that investigate incoming tenants are at risk of creating an environment whereby the emphasis is placed on individual responsibility rather than on viewing the circumstances of an individual as a result of multiple contributing factors.

Such targeted vision can lead or contribute to the alienation of an individual from spheres of society.

The level of transparency in how these types of systems are built and utilised is largely context dependant. Many citizens will have these systems applied to them and be impacted by their outcomes, yet not know that that is the case. The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI) found in 2020 that public awareness of the use of personal data was low.

“[…] urgent need for the world to do better in using algorithms in the right way: to promote fairness, not undermine it.” - Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation

The public are at risk of being negatively impacted by various data systems if enough attention is not paid to the context of their implantation. The hope is that the use of data analytics, machine learning and algorithms will eventually need to demonstrate human value before they can be introduced.

When these technologies are used as aids for relationships however, they can be transformative, ensuring that early red flags of crisis are put in front of the right people who can start the right conversations.

An attitude that the solution alone will transform, rather than enhance is a dangerous one.

Carnegie recommend that any data system deployment, or multi-agency data sharing should hold in mind three core values.

  1. That the project is purposeful and provides tangible benefits
  2. That the usage from an organisation is proportionate and steers clear of ‘mission creep’
  3. That the use of other’s data is responsible

Currently, best practice for ensuring housing data is stored in the best way to derive value from it can be found in HACT’s UK Housing Data Standard, developed with OSCRE.

When applied poorly, public trust in the use of other systems can be dented; decision aid systems need to be implemented with caution.

The journey is well underway, but it’s now the time to pause, take stock and interrogate the value that can actually be delivered across multiple stakeholders with purpose-driven implementation.