Trust is required in data and the organisations that hold it

Assuring data, and investing in the infrastructure that supports it, is crucially important, including to Sir Nigel Shadbolt of the Open Data Institute

Mistrust between those who share, collect and use data reduces the potential value that can be generated, and the UK has a significant role to play in providing services that establish trust in data

Data flows within organisations, between organisations, to and from the public, and across international borders. 

The past three years have accelerated our understanding of data in society at both an organisational and individual level. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, nightly news conferences told us how ministers and medical professionals were ‘following the data’. Data helped inform governments around the world on what action to take and whether these actions were working.    

It is not just during pandemics that we need assurance and trust in data and the organisations that look after it. Our work with Frontier Economics found that – in the UK – data sharing in the public and private sectors generates social and economic benefits of between 1% and 2.5% of GDP annually. 

Scaled to the 20 largest economies in 2019, this suggests that data sharing could unlock between $700bn and $1.75tn in value globally. But successfully realising this value relies on trustworthy data flowing in well-governed ways: an essential feature of a modern state’s data infrastructure. At the Open Data Institute, we believe that investing in our data infrastructure is as important as investing in physical infrastructure – the roads, railways, and electricity networks on which we all rely.  

Yet trust is hard won and there is currently little unanimity when it comes to trusting the data that surrounds us, trusting the way it is used and the organisations who hold it. Despite wider acceptance of data as essential to all of our decision making, and the importance of that data reflecting realities in the world (eg. in Covid-19 cases), only the NHS, pharmaceutical researchers and academic institutions are trusted by more than half of the respondents to the tracker survey from the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. 

This echoes the ODI’s own earlier findings, which showed that 9 in 10 people (87%) felt it is either important or very important that the organisations they interact with use data about them ethically. 59% trusted the NHS and healthcare providers to use personal data ethically – the only type of organisation trusted by more than half of those surveyed. 

While it is often imagined that data is the preserve of the digital age, its importance and use goes back to the dawn of civilisation – from listing the grain stored in ancient Egypt to the Domesday Book’s inventory of property in post-conquest England. Whole new areas of government and entirely new types of business have emerged over the centuries based on high quality data. Lloyd’s of London, for example, was founded in 1688 and its ability to gather and share trusted data about ships, shipping routes, weather patterns and piracy ultimately grew the company’s insurance list.  

Lloyd’s leveraged trust in its data and data sharing to become the leading light in shipping insurance. Ship owners, merchants and sailors used this data to open up trade routes and for safe navigation of the seas, finding it to be true, unbiased and valuable – what we might now call “data assurance”. It was eventually backed by Lloyd’s promise to pay out on ships that didn’t make it back, providing further assurance and creating a business that grew, spawned an entire industry and still thrives today. 

So, in this and many other cases, history shows us that data that is collected, used, and shared using agreed standards and protocols inspires confidence and ultimately builds value, allowing its utility to grow over time. These standards and protocols are the keystones of data infrastructure; their careful creation and implementation builds the trust that enables data to flow. With our new white paper on data assurance, the ODI demonstrates how data assurance will help to realise the economic value of data for the UK in our digital and data-enabled era.  

The white paper outlines how the UK has a significant role to play in providing services that establish trust in data. This also presents an economic opportunity, in line with Mission 1 of the UK government’s National Data Strategy (which aims to “unlock the value of data across the economy”). The EU’s European Data Strategy also notes that access to data is “essential for innovation and growth”. Moreover, data is the essential feedstock for rapidly emerging AI services and capabilities. 

Exponential growth
Our research illustrates that the market for data assurance is set to grow to £7.31bn by 2025, a fourfold increase from 2021. This shows that the potential for the data assurance industry in the UK is huge, with prospects for exponential growth as trust in data increases.  If used effectively, this can drive productivity, boost innovation and engender trust. However, mistrust between those who share, collect and use data reduces the potential value that can be generated. So users and the people responsible for data in organisations, as well as regulators and professional bodies, need access to guidance, advice and tools to help manage data and demonstrate that it can be used with confidence. 

This is why data assurance is so important. 

Trusted, independent organisations like the ODI have a role to play: working with business and government, preparing the ground and providing frameworks for data assurance.  

To that end, the ODI is developing a code of conduct for organisations to help them demonstrate that they are collecting, accessing, using, and sharing data in trustworthy ways.  

We are also looking at the data itself, and at processes that can increase confidence in it meeting specific needs, thereby building trust. This goes beyond data quality to cover ethical and legal considerations. 

We believe that these steps are vital on the journey to building trust in data and trustworthy data practices. This will, in turn enable the UK to develop a reputation as a centre for excellence and support wider aspirations to establish the UK as a global data and digital services hub, and a leader in data assurance.

This piece was originally written for and published by PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World.

Sir Nigel Shadbolt

Sir Nigel Shadbolt is executive chair of the Open Data Institute, which he co-founded with Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

Learn More →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *