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UK government examines privacy and data harnessing

UK government examines privacy and data harnessing


A government committee launched an inquiry this week into how government and public bodies collect and analyse data, and opportunities for reform of the current system.  

William Wragg MP, chair of The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, said in a press release: “The data landscape, both inside and outside government, has changed dramatically in recent years, with sources multiplying exponentially. In this data deluge, how can Governments make sense of the numbers and improve the lives of the general public? The inquiry we’re launching today will question how statisticians and analysts can draw meaningful conclusions for Government from the mass of data we generate every day.  

“There are already a range of innovative projects underway across Government, ranging from the use of shipping data to enhance evidence on trade flows, to the potential of anonymised and aggregated phone data to improve travel statistics.  

“We will explore both the opportunities and the dangers presented by new data sources, questioning how demands for evidence are changing, what it means to use data ethically, and whether existing privacy protections are sufficient.” 

According to the committee’s press release MPs will examine how civil servants make the most of the mass of data generated to evidence decisions and achieve policy aims. 

Last month, the UK's National Statistician suggested that modern data collection could make the 10-yearly UK census obsolete. In the inquiry, MPs will investigate the Office for National Statistics’ proposals on the future of population statistics and examine whether statisticians could make better use of emerging data sources. 

MPs are also calling for evidence on using data ethically, the processes in place to protect the privacy of UK citizens, and issues with access to official statistics. 

The committee invites evidence on any or all the following: 

Data and analysis in government  

  • How are official statistics and analysis currently produced? 
  • How successfully do government departments share data? 
  • How do other nations collect and produce statistics? 

 The changing data landscape  

  • Is the age of the survey, and the decennial census, over?  
  • What new sources of data are available to government statisticians and analysts? 
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of new sources of data? 

Protecting privacy and acting ethically  

  • Who seeks to protect the privacy of UK citizens in the production of statistics and analysis? How? 
  • What does it mean to use data ethically, in the context of statistics and analysis? 
  • Are current processes and protections sufficient? 

Understanding and responding to evolving user needs  

  • Who should official data and analyses serve? 
  • How are demands for data changing?
  • How do users of official statistics and analysis wish to access data? 
  • How can we ensure that official data and analyses have impact?
  • How do we ensure that users, in the Civil Service, Parliament and beyond, have the skills they need to make effective use of data?