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The UK National Data Strategy 2020: equity, fairness and rights

Tue Oct 27, 2020
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Access to data and information promotes fair competition and informed markets, and empowers people as consumers, creators and citizens. How could this principle be realised in a national data strategy?

At the Open Data Institute (ODI), we want a world where data works for everyone, and our manifesto outlines how this vision can be achieved. One of our manifesto points is equity: everyone must benefit fairly from data. Access to data and information promotes fair competition and informed markets, and empowers people as consumers, creators and citizens. How could this principle be realised in a national data strategy?

Benefitting fairly from data

Fairness is a contested term. What seems a fair outcome for one person might seem unfair to another, and it’s rare that a decision or an outcome will be seen as fair by everyone in a society. The controversy over this summer’s A-level awards is a good example of this. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic students were unable to sit their exams and so Ofqual, the exam regulator, used an algorithm to allocate students’ grades by drawing on teachers’ predictions of their performance. The calculation was intended to be fair in a comparative sense, by preventing overall cohort grade inflation for this year’s students compared to previous years. But this adjustment was based on each school’s historic performance, which meant the awards for students in large subjects or in struggling schools were automatically downgraded regardless of an individual’s talent and work. Collectively, the national pattern of downgrades also affected students in state schools disproportionally more than in private schools, recreating patterns of structural disadvantage.

Although it might not always be possible to guarantee an outcome that all parties will consider fair, there are practical steps and measures that can be taken to minimise the risk of unfairness. Earlier this year, we published a report, funded by The Legal Education Foundation, looking at the collection by digital public services of people’s protected characteristics. The anonymous collection of such data – data which includes race, religion, gender, and disability, for example – can provide valuable insights into who is using a digital service. Just as importantly, it can provide insights into who isn’t using a digital service, and whether that digital service has been successfully accessed by communities that might face structural social or economic barriers. By collecting data of this kind, public digital services can ensure that they are reducing discrimination, improving equality and inclusion, and improving their capacity to counter the ‘digital divide‘. Successful leadership in this area by government and wider public digital services could help establish norms that influence public expectations of private sector digital services too.

So we’d like to see a national data strategy that commits to proactive inclusion of individuals and communities with protected characteristics in digital public services.

Fair competition, informed markets

Data has a crucial role to play for equity in the private sector too. The personal data that a company collects about consumers can be used to create new products and services, or to personalise existing services.  When data like this is accumulated over time and across large numbers of customers, it can also give a company a significant advantage in the market, making it difficult for new competitors to enter – which might mean consumers have fewer choices and face higher prices.

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a 2018 EU regulation that’s also enshrined in UK law through the Data Protection Act (2018). GDPR requires organisations to protect the personal data and privacy of EU citizens for transactions that occur within EU member states and the broader European Economic Area (EEA). GDPR also includes a right to data portability for individuals so that people can choose to obtain and re-use the personal data about them that they have shared.

How data portability is put into practice has the potential to improve competition and markets. It could enable consumers to have access to the data that has been collected or that they have shared about their spending habits, or their preferences or behaviour patterns, if they request that data. Our work on open banking and open communications has shown that effective data portability could also improve competition and markets through enabling consumers to share data about themselves with other organisations for different products or services. These could be additional products and services that help enrich or augment the original in some way; or they could be rival products and services that help to drive down prices and improve quality for consumers. In this way, effective data portability could support the development of a dynamic and thriving ecosystem of charities, start-ups, SMEs and larger companies, as well as help ensure consumers in vulnerable circumstances are not ‘locked in’ to unfavourable deals with monolithic producers or suppliers. The benefits of better markets could extend beyond individual consumers to communities, and could contribute to longer-term social aspirations such as improving energy efficiency and reducing climate impacts.

So we’d like to see a national data strategy that supports measures such as data portability for data to develop markets for consumers’ advantage and for social good.

Empowering people as consumers, creators and citizens

What the UK data protection landscape will look like after 31 December 2020 when the UK leaves the EU is not yet known.

Some might want to use this as an opportunity to reduce the protections that UK citizens have under GDPR, to make it easier to agree international trade deals that could have an element of international personal data transfers. We disagree with this approach: our research project About Data About Us, conducted in collaboration with the RSA and Luminate, showed that people were well-informed about the basic premise of GDPR, liked the rights that it gave them and had sometimes used those rights effectively, and wanted more control over the data about themselves that they shared. So we don’t support an approach that might mean a loss of citizens’ rights.

Another approach might be to maintain alignment with GDPR. Countries that aren’t members of the EU but that want to participate in data transfers of EU citizen data for business or services can apply to the European Commission (EC) for an “adequacy decision”. A data adequacy decision by the EC means that the country’s data protection framework is considered adequate for the free flow of personal data transfers from the EEA without additional safeguards – comparable to GDPR.

But we’d like to see a UK data protection framework that goes further than this and that builds on GDPR, strengthening provisions around data portability, and including provisions for rights of groups of people (and not just for the rights of individuals).  This could potentially create more protections for vulnerable communities, and support the use of personal data for collective good.  So we’d like to see a national data strategy for a UK data protection framework that maintains and develops the rights provided under GDPR

Get involved

These are just some of our aspirations for a national data strategy, and some of the ideas we are exploring as we develop our response to the consultation about the UK’s National Data Strategy 2020. We’ll also be discussing some of these ideas at the ODI Summit next month.

The consultation is open to individuals and organisations across the UK, and it’s important that a wide range of voices and perspectives contribute to it – so do share and participate.

At the start of this project, we pulled together this spreadsheet to map the different elements of the UK National Data Strategy, to help us plan our response to it. We’ve also made a version which shows which sections of the National Data Strategy we think are most relevant to our ODI manifesto ideas about equity, to examine those sections in more depth and evaluate them. Feel free to download the spreadsheet and to adapt it for your own use.

If you think anything is missing from the spreadsheet, or you’d like to discuss the ideas in this post, tweet us @ODIHQ or email us: [email protected]

For more about how we’re engaging with the UK National Data Strategy consultation, please visit the project page.