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Reports & Publications

Data management and use: Governance for the 21st Century

Richardson

By Genevra Richardson

We have reached a critical moment in the development of data science and data-enabled technologies. The growth in scale of data collection, and growth in power of analytics, means that new and previously unforeseen uses of data become possible and even routine. Over the past year the British Academy and the Royal Society have brought together leading academics, industry leaders, civil society and data and technology specialists to better understand the governance challenges posed by this rapidly evolving data environment.

Our interdisciplinary report Data management and use: Governance for the 21st Century, was published in June.

The potential value that can be derived from data is immense – from using data relating to individuals and communities to provide more effective public and commercial services to enabling more effective responses to humanitarian crises.  Our report looks across a wide range of sectors and disciplines, across which data is used in diverse ways and for a range of purposes. It was clear to us that common issues emerged across this landscape, issues that go beyond well-examined questions of privacy and security of data.

Across the sphere of data management and use, common governance concepts such as consent and ownership of data are challenged by the rapid reuse and repurposing of data.

Foreseeing and tackling these sorts of new challenges is essential to ensure that the extraordinary opportunities for a data enabled society, including for improved public services, are realised. The most important factor is building well-founded trust. History has provided rich illustrations of how the widespread adoption of new technologies can increase public anxiety, or result in major public controversy, both of which risk hampering potential benefits.

For example, it is estimated that the UK Government handles 1.5 billion transactions with business and citizens annually. Analysis of this administrative data can help reduce the cost of public services; increase understanding of socio-economic issues and make better policy. Much of this data is sensitive and its management and use may cause public concern as data generated for specific administrative purposes can be used as part of a public resource without the knowledge or agreement of the citizens involved.  This is especially the case if there is a possibility that inequalities built into the system are perpetuated. 

A framework for data governance

The interlinked and networked nature of data use requires a holistic approach to governance. There is a case for a common framework underpinning data governance to help anticipate what changes are required and ensure that all areas of data management and use are adequately connected and governed– both to protect people and organisations whose data is used, and to ensure that the benefits of better use of data can be realised.

This common framework is established by embedding a principled approach to governing data use. And the core, overarching principle is that systems of governance must promote human flourishing. The key idea behind this is that, while we all create data trails through our everyday activities that can be mined for insight and value, humans must never be seen as serving data and its uses – rather the use of data must always serve human communities. To deliver this core principle, systems of data governance must:

  • protect individual and collective rights and interests
  • ensure that trade-offs affected by data management and data use are made transparently, accountably and inclusively
  • seek out good practices and learn from success and failure
  • enhance existing democratic governance.

Embedding these principles across the governance landscape will require oversight and our report recommends the creation of a new kind of body – which we call a data stewardship body – guiding governance across all spheres of data use.

The stewardship body would be expected to conduct inclusive dialogue and expert investigation into novel questions and issues, and to enable new ways to anticipate the future consequences of today’s decisions.

We have been delighted by the levels and breadth of engagement throughout our review and believe that there is a growing consensus about the need to act urgently in this area. If we get this right, there is a significant opportunity for the UK to lead on this issue and be at the forefront of innovation.

About the author:

Genevra Richardson is Professor of Law, King’s College London. She is Vice President, Public Policy, at the British Academy and acted as co-chair of the British Academy/Royal Society working group on Data Management and Use.

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