Sharing data to improve public services

Written by Laila Lotfi, Marketing Director at Methods Digital

We were privileged to host a fascinating discussion at the Digital Leaders salon yesterday afternoon on the theme of improving public services through open data.

Methods Digital’s Head of Development Tom White started the discussion off together with Civil Service Fast Streamer Dave Worley, after which the floor was open to participants to join in and contribute their thoughts on the subject.

Whilst releasing huge amounts of data to let other people play with it and build services on top of that data platform is the in thing to do amongst Silicon Valley-style tech businesses, it is quite another thing to ask the UK government to make its data available in the same way.

Data platform

ONS data platform

For inspiration, we can look to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which, in partnership with Methods Digital, has built a data platform, making all its public data available via open APIs, accessible to both humans and machines. This kind of structure allows an ecosystem of third-party services to flourish.

A precursor to what is to come? Not so sure.

For a start, there’s sometimes a lack of trust in the government as custodian of our data as citizens. Unlike the tech industry, if government is not seen to be taking data security seriously, how can the public sector generate trust in its services against a narrative of perceived security breaches? That’s without going into the shadow of GCHQ looming over every conversation about data privacy.

However there was consensus in the room that if citizens could see a direct link between what they share and the outcome or benefits they get in return, this would engender trust and increase willingness to share data for the common good. Government could learn from private businesses like Google or Facebook when it comes to making it clear to people who are providing data why they are doings so, and what the benefit is. This immediate realisation of the benefits of sharing our personal data with government is a major blocker to providing more connected services across departments.

However, ‘selling the benefits’ won’t be enough. Citizens want to be able to clearly and easily opt out – already a best practice facility offered by private sector firms, but not so by public sector organisations.

In summary, to realise the benefits of data sharing, government needs to take some ideas from the private sector, including:

  1. How to demonstrate the benefits of increased data sharing, and demonstrate added value
  2. Be open about what data departments hold and how that data is used
  3. Empower citizens to retain control over their own data with a simple opt-in/opt-out option, and the ability to correct or delete data held about them

This should help foster trust and start to build engagement and value.

This post first appeared on the Methods Digital Blog here.

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