Better data can help make a better society

Frankie Kay of the Office for National Statistics writes about a simple way in which we can improve lives all across the nation

Credit: justgrimes/CC BY-SA 2.0

We all know that fair policies and adequate resources help a society to thrive. But to make these things a reality there’s a third element that, while essential, is often taken for granted. 
Although lesser-known, this extra part of the equation is something held by all organisations across our country, something that we at the Office for National Statistics are committed to sharing and encouraging others to do so; it’s simply data. Without reliable data, it’s impossible to make evidence-based decisions.

It is only by using rich and varied data sources that we can truly get a full picture of what is going on in our society and ensure that we leave no one behind. By bringing information from different data sets together safely, we are generating powerful new insights into serious societal issues, enabling organisations to provide support when and where it is needed and improving economic analysis.

We’ve already linked mortality data with information from higher education institutions to provide new insight on student suicide, and improved our economic statistics by using VAT returns from businesses, provided by HMRC, to produce more reliable early estimates of economic growth.

We are also using hospital admissions records to improve the statistics we produce on healthy life expectancy at the local level. These records, which are handled securely and don’t have people’s names attached to them, can be linked with non-health related sources, such as the census, to give us a much clearer picture of health needs across society.

The public are largely supportive of sharing their data when they are kept informed of when and how it is being used, when the robust safeguards are explained to them and when it’s for the good of society

Our current statistics reveal that life expectancy in different areas of the UK varies by up to 20 years. But what they don’t tell us, when collected from only one source, is the complicated and varied reasons for this. The new linked data will help us to reveal some of these reasons and allow local authorities to better target interventions and reduce health inequalities.

One of our new collaborations, with Administrative Data Research UK and the Department for Education, is linking anonymised data from the 2011 Census with around two million attainment records from the National Pupil Database to develop a more comprehensive understanding of how children’s home lives can shape their educational attainment. A great deal of work has gone into ensuring a sound ethical and legal basis for this work. Rigorous safeguards are in place to ensure everyone’s privacy is protected and this new data will provide evidence for developing services that work better for all families.

Why don’t we share more data across organisations?
With existing data-sharing projects yielding so much impact for our society, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s now something that happens routinely. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. 

Large amounts of data that could be shared or brought together to help us better understand our society remain within one organisation. There are various reasons for this. Firstly, data-sharing between organisations can be limited by old or incompatible technology. Also, organisations collect data in different ways and have different definitions for the terms and unique identifiers they use.

Finding a common outcome which both the data supplier and users of the data can share can also be a challenge. Here we need to do more to show the far-reaching impact of data sharing. Those of us using data for public good need to start shouting about these benefits. 

Another barrier, and perhaps one of the most important of all, is public trust. This is hardly surprising, as much of the data collected about us is personal. 

At the ONS, we ensure that all data is treated safely, securely and ethically, ensuring people’s privacy. We have several ethical principles and we only use data if there are clear public benefits. The National Statistician’s Data Ethics Advisory Committee (NSDEC) provides us with independent advice on the ethics of our data use. Everyone has a right to privacy and to have their personal data protected. 

The public are largely supportive of sharing their data when they are kept informed of when and how it is being used, when the robust safeguards are explained to them and when it’s for the good of society. It is vital that we are open and transparent with the public about how their data is being used in order to build that public trust both within government but also as part of the wider community of data users such as academics and researchers.

Opportunities to use data to improve our lives are all around us; the data revolution has created previously unimaginable sources for us to draw from. 

If the UK wants to take advantage of the riches on offer, we must break down more barriers to sharing and do more to build public trust and confidence in our use of data.



Sam Trendall

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