The UK Government has an ambitious data strategy that aims to encourage and facilitate data sharing between departments and businesses. The Cabinet Secretary focused on its importance in his annual lecture last week, highlighting the significant benefits better use of data will bring. Elements of the strategy appear relatively straightforward, but how will the government fully realise the potential, and align citizens with this bold new approach?

To succeed, the strategy requires the development of legislation and policy to encourage, support and govern the sharing of data. Enabling B2B movement of non-personal data should not represent a challenge, and broadly speaking can be achieved by organisations working to achieve a common interest.

Within government, the challenges are nuanced. The major benefits will accrue from sharing personal data, and although individual rights are already protected by data processing legislation and GDPR, departments may be reluctant to relinquish control of “their” data and invest in infrastructure that offers little immediate, direct benefit to them – they have enough work to do delivering their own services to citizens. Although it should be recognised that better use of data will enable the streamlining of services and better experiences for customers.

The evidence thus far is that these challenges are not insurmountable, and can be overcome with the right level of support and intervention from central government, in the form of policy, legislation, and practical support. We’ve already seen some excellent examples of successful sharing, including the Benefits Passport, which makes the lives of millions of citizens easier; and in the collation of disparate data sources to support COVID policy and support interventions.

However, the sharing of government-captured data with and between private-sector organisations presents a significantly more complex challenge, but it’s here where huge potential lies.

Building trust

The problem in this area is perfectly illustrated by the recent announcement of an indefinite delay to the implementation of government policy to share the medical records of individuals with research companies. This follows an outcry by civil liberty groups, and a campaign to encourage people to opt out. Thus far roughly 1.5 million people have followed this advice.

On the face of it, sharing anonymous medical data should be one of the least contentious policy areas, given the potential benefits. We’re assured that the records will be pseudonymised and their use restricted, but opponents are concerned about the principle of personal data becoming “government data” and being passed on to industry without the original person’s consent.

Somewhat ironically, the personal data Google holds on us is more detailed and more revealing than medical records are. Google may not be party to the conversations I have with my doctor, but it knows every search I did in the period before and after my consultations, and therefore has a clear view of my symptoms, diagnosis and prescription.

Google is far from exemplary. It, like Bing, Facebook and others, provides a range of “free” services in return for your data, and happily sells that data to third parties – it is an extremely valuable commodity. Despite this, I don’t think I’m alone in being more candid in sharing my concerns with Google via search terms than I am with my GP, and rarely request that Google “forgets me”. I really should!

Power to the people

So what explains this paradox? Why are people happier to share data with a global corporation that sells your data but we don’t trust the government, which is there to protect our interests. The answer is probably threefold: there is a widespread lack of understanding of the motives of Google (and many others); the general mistrust of government; and the simple impact of personal choice and control. We’re happy to share data with Google (and other online behemoths) because it’s our choice (or at least we believe it to be), and we see benefits in doing so.

So, what’s the answer?

My data, my choice

Imagine your response if the government announced plans to share your (and everyone else’s) DNA with unnamed organisations around the world. Ponder, for a moment, your visceral reaction to this.

Now, consider the alternative. Cancer Research invites you to share your DNA to help it with its research. It promises the data will be stored anonymously and not shared again. How do you feel now?

I’ve asked these hypothetical questions of a few people recently, and it’s fair to say the response to the second is significantly more positive than the first, which met with unequivocal resistance. The simple truth is we’re significantly happier when we make the choice (and we’re fully informed of the context).

Understanding the benefits

For me, there is a non-hypothetical example of this provided close to home. A good friend of mine contributes to an annual survey which is designed to support research into breast cancer. The level of personal information she provides covers everything from age, height, weight and overall health, to exercise, diet, alcohol consumption and general lifestyle. It is revealing and deeply invasive, and I’m certain she would be in revolt if she believed the government was collating similar information on her and sharing it without her permission.

I’ve discussed this with her and it’s evident the difference is her freedom to choose.

There is also a very successful precedent provided by Open Banking, which gives the ownership of personal data to the individual. Over 300 fintech companies have emerged that rely on this data being shared with them in a trust-based, quid pro quo relationship. Here, government policy (PSD2) has been the enabler, giving power to the consumer to access their banking data and giving them the individual choice with whom and when they share it.

I, for one, would welcome a future in which similar policies place my data under my control, enabling government and public sector organisations to certify the authenticity of different attributes. This, for me, is a hugely exciting area, making it easy for me to share data, and for the recipient to trust its veracity.

Data as a product

I suspect I’m not alone. In the future we may own our attribute and identity data, adding to it incrementally over time, and augmenting it with validations provided by a range of providers e.g. government, banks, local authorities. We will choose to share parcels of this certified data, sometimes anonymously for the common good, other times to make our own lives easier.

The possibilities are endless. Imagine a future in which we provide trusted information to HMRC, or as part of our mortgage application. How much simpler will tiresome processes become? In one simple transaction, I could prove my identity, income and ability to repay my debt.

My friend could provide her anonymised lifestyle information to support breast cancer research, and I could provide my data to my financial adviser, all in one fell swoop. In turn, the processing of this digital data and information would be a doddle.

Of course, legislation, including international agreements, will still be required to warrant that shared data is not used or further shared inappropriately, but the power will be with the individual and their trust retained.

The good news is that the technology exists to meet this requirement. Open Banking, on which Scott Logic has worked extensively, demonstrates the power and value of Open APIs to provide secure, consensual sharing of data, which is trusted by third parties because the identity of the individual is certified by the provider.

Similarly, we are working with DWP on Citizen Event History, which treats data as a product, combining information from multiple different trusted sources. In this way it can better understand the transactions of individuals, in the wider context of their lives, ultimately facilitating better, frictionless services.

There is still a long way to go, and many hurdles to be overcome, but the ingredients are there to have a transformative impact on our lives, whilst protecting our personal information and liberties.

Scott Logic is currently gathering contributions from department directors across Government to produce a report on the topic of data sharing in Government. It will explore the opportunities and challenges, and what the future holds. Sign up here to receive a copy of the report.