The coming fight over data

Data will be an ever more valuable resource in the future, allowing business and governments to be dramatically more productive.

But it will also be deeply contested: as people’s digital and physical lives become increasingly entwined, data privacy will be accelerated on its course from bring a niche concern to a mainstream political issue.

A data regulation revolution is on the horizon

European Data Protection regulation harmonisation is looming, and it will have profound impacts on the UK. So given this, how can we strike a balance between data-driven innovation and data protection? If the balance is tipped, then either innovation will be stifled, or people’s right to privacy will be compromised. 

The coming European Data Protection Regulation is the most important piece of law that no-one has heard of. It will potentially define the data landscape for a decade and it is vital that the public is fully aware of its significance, so a national conversation should be instigated. 

We need to get down to brass tacks

Government should take measures to make it clear to the public what trade-offs are being made, and what the proposed new set of rights and responsibilities will mean in practice.

A 12-month enquiry should begin, based on a citizens’ jury, looking at how to make the most of data while safeguarding people’s interests.

…whilst aspiring to gold standards.

Many businesses have extremely high standards in the management of personal data, but there is currently no way for them to signify to customers that they are going above and beyond the requirements of the Data Protection Act.

Government should develop a ‘gold standard’ framework so that businesses are able to demonstrate where they go above and beyond. The gold standard could be as simple as “We will never share any of your data with anyone unless you explicitly instruct us to”.

Government is held back from making most use out of the data it holds because of uncertainty about how best to work with datasets that contain personal data.

We acknowledge that this is a developing field; there is no perfect form of anonymisation, and no perfect solution to working with aggregated personal data. But, government can do more, and should work with the UK Anonymisation Network to identify the best methodologies for working with aggregated personal data. Examples of good practice, such as the Ministry of Justice Data Lab, should be replicated or potentially turned into a cross departmental Data Lab.

In addition to this, civil servants at the data 'coal face' should receive consistent and up to date training about how what the Data Protection Act requires of them. Where knowledge is partial, unnecessary fear of breaching the Act can get in the way of socially valuable use cases.

The value of analysis

Nesta research has shown that skills for data analysis are one of the top priorities for the UK today. Much has been done already, but current measures should be taken further. There is evidence that data skills are most valuable when blended with industry specific expertise.

Firstly, Further and Higher Education Institutions should actively promote the fusion of data skills and industry specific knowledge by embedding industrial learning courses which should go beyond sandwich courses and industry placements to enable in depth domain expertise for graduates.

Secondly, more opportunities for those already in the workforce to easily acquire or upgrade the skills required for data analysis should be provided. Online learning may be well suited to the needs of those who are already in work.

But to address access to talent issues with data analytics, before UK developed data talent can filter through the labour market, short term skills gaps will need to be addressed.

UK migration policy should reflect gaps in a timely and accurate manner to ensure UK employers can recruit from overseas talent. The Shortage Occupation List under Tier 2 of the UK migration Points Based System should be reformed to include occupations where core responsibilities include data analysis.

We look forward to a discussion of these issues at Future Shock today.


George Windsor

George Windsor

George Windsor

Senior Policy Researcher

George was a Senior Policy Researcher in the Creative and Digital Economy team.

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