31 October 2016

Is the government ready for the age of big data?


Most companies estimate they are analysing just 12 per cent of the data they hold, and it is likely the government is doing far worse than that.

As the array of data collected about us rapidly expands – with our mobile phones, cars and Oyster cards recording more and more information about who we are, where we go and what we do – how much should, and can, governments or private companies know about us?

If you want an answer to that question, the House of Commons hasn’t been the best place to look, says Daniel Zeichner.

“The number of people in Parliament who are interested and understand these issues is relatively few,” he says. “Which is why those of us who are interested have a duty to really raise them.”

Today, Zeichner, shadow minister of state for transport and Labour MP for Cambridge, is launching the all party parliamentary group on data analytics, which aims to raise awareness of these issues.

Perhaps the biggest data challenge facing the government, he says, is a badly needed update of the legislation covering data collection, to make the most of technological advances.

The Data Protection Act, which governs a wide array of informational issues, was drafted when the Nokia 3310 was still the epitome of mobile technology.

“We have regulatory frameworks from a different era,” says Zeichner. “It’s very difficult for legislation to keep up with the pace of technological change, and what we have is not going to see us through the next decade.

“What we are lacking is a way forward, a way to adapt to changes in technology. It’s not something we’ve got time to wait on.”

Future-proofing legislation against technical change is badly needed if public services are to make the most of new developments. This has certainly not been helped by the loss of several key personnel at the Government Digital Service in recent months, many to the private sector.

Perhaps the biggest political question around data concerns who gets the right to use it. As the cost of holding data tends to zero, almost all data that is collected will be retained indefinitely.

As a result, most data about people will be held by private firms, who will demand a reasonable return from others who want to make use of it.

Under current legal arrangements, the public sector will not automatically get a right to access this data. This could start to become a problem when, for example, the best measures of traffic flow available to transport authorities such as TfL are recordings from the GPS trackers in private taxis.

Companies have a strong interest in keeping this information to themselves to get a competitive edge over other firms – and without a clear framework that regulates how the public sector can and should access this data, a lot of very useful information risks being obscured by commercial confidentiality. Already, the Bus Services Bill that is currently before Parliament is partly intended to address the unwillingness of bus companies to release their granular travel data.

For most of the public, of course, the main concern will be privacy. DeepMind, a Google subsidiary, was recently given access to the Royal Free Hospital Trust’s medical records to develop pre-emptive approaches to healthcare, raising concerns among medical confidentiality campaigners.

While such programmes offer a wealth of opportunities to improve the outcomes for patients, Zeichner says it is politicians who will have to decide where the line is drawn on privacy.

“It is not difficult to see how knowing more about patients could be used to reduce admissions into hospital,” he says. “But how do you pull that together? How do you make sure that is not then used in an insurance-based system that penalises certain high-risk groups? These are big, political decisions.”

During the unfolding of the data revolution, keeping public trust will be key. If the government can’t be trusted as a fair arbiter of information, it will struggle to get permission from citizens and companies to access the data needed to plan public services effectively.

“We have to convince the public that there’s nothing risky about all this,” says Zeichner. “If people begin to feel that the data collected about them is being used just for advertisers, just for Google and others to make money out of them, then that level of trust which is going to be necessary will be blown.”

The government is going to have to get serious about data if it wants to keep up with the pace of change. This is going to involve sitting down with big data-collecting firms, and thrashing out deals that allow public services to use of the data, while allowing firms a fair return.

Not to do so risks the government being left behind.

“Frankly, I don’t want a future that is just run by Google and Apple,” says Zeichner. “I want a democratic response, on behalf of citizens and the public. Because otherwise, we could be heading for something quite dystopian.”

George Greenwood is a freelance political journalist