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How can the British economy get the most out of consumer data?

By Jon Bernstein  

How can the British economy get the most out of consumer data?

This article was produced in association with BCS

A video summary of Prospect’s data events from the 2015 party conferences can be found below

Data is a story invariably told not in primary colours but in black and white. Or for those that prefer metaphors more subject-specific, digital data is a topic that prompts a response in binary. When it comes to its use, restrictions are characterised as anti-business and pro-consumer, while freedoms are offered up as pro-business and anti-consumer.

On the one hand—to quote Conservative MP Nicola Blackwood, the newly appointed chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee—the collection and use of consumer data is a “Faustian pact where consumers are helpless to huge internet giants. On the other hand, it’s the tech sector saying ‘Look at all the benefits.’” Liz Coll, digital policy manager at Citizens Advice Bureau, believes that “we need to step away from the dualism, the trade-off argument, and really think about consumers in the 21st century.”

Blackwood and Coll were talking at a Prospect panel discussion hosted during October’s Conservative Party conference in Manchester. The discussion, supported by BCS—The Chartered Institute for IT—was titled “How can the British economy get the most out of consumer data?”

David Evans, director of policy and community at BCS, argued that it is this binary thinking that is preventing, at least in part, the British economy realising the true potential of consumer data. “Your personal data is valuable and it is most valuable when it’s aggregated around you as a person rather than through the lens of a company,” he told the party conference audience. “But it’s only really powerful when you share it with other people.”

The trouble, he said, was that it is extremely difficult to get that data out of organisations. While he conceded that some might describe voluntarily sharing data with commercial organisations as “rampant lunacy”, he pointed to material benefits from the relatively trivial (music recommendations) to the life-saving (early cancer detection).

“The array of uses of that data is huge but it’s just not happening,” Evans said. Why not? “Because individuals don’t have the control to get that data and they don’t have the trust in place to securely share it.” What is needed instead, he argued, is a different “ecosystem”. Evans was making the case at conceptual level but one practical implementation of this thinking is a data store, from where an individual can control the information held and the permissions granted to a variety of commercial and non-commercial service providers, from retailers to government departments. Likening its use to a debit or credit card reader, trust becomes implicit, management tacit.

Control and trust were the recurring themes of the 90-minute discussion. Nicola Blackwood argued that a lack of transparency in the commercial use of data has created a “deficit in public trust.” Moreover, customers don’t believe they benefit from the data that they share, she said citing a research that found that eight in ten customers believe that organisations use their data solely for economic gain. “Businesses do benefit from data sharing but they only do that by providing better services. This is something that is not being effectively communicated.”

By example, she cited the case of music streaming service Spotify that altered its privacy policy in August without much public explanation. Uproar followed which forced the company to articulate why it had done what it had done. Through explanation, Spotify regained public trust. Similarly, the UK government only began to expound the benefits of—an initiative to pool GP records—after initial communications proved “a complete disaster.”

“People’s attitudes to their privacy preferences are contextual,” said Liz Coll. “It depends what the data is going to be used for, who is collecting it, what time of day it is, who you are and what you need to get done.”

Beyond better communication and transparency, consumers want to be able to revoke permissions initially granted and want to know what they can do when things go wrong. In the physical world—think building work or supermarket shopping—we have “internalised” remedies, Coll said. Something similar is needed online although she conceded a solution might be more complex. “When you look at the internet how would I know if something has gone wrong with my data? How would I know what had been lost and how it had happened? How would I be able to quantify whether it counts as ‘material harm’ as required by law?”

Coll welcomed the idea of a data store in principle because “it flips control back to the individual” but said the user interface would need to be expertly built to ensure it was not too complex for the regular user. Asked if government might build and provide such as service, Blackwood said: “I think there would be a competitive market for it. And I’m not sure the government has ever proven itself as being particularly competent at providing effective and secure IT services.”

So what is the role of policy makers? David Evans said government had “a huge leadership role to play” but questioned the current legislative framework around data and data protection. “I’d go back to the old adage, ‘Rules rarely prevent what they forbid’,” he said while Coll noted: “We all know that the time lag on legislation—and our inability to read the future—prevents us from being able to create legislation that is future proofed. Are there other things that will help create a safe and confident environment? That’s the bigger question.” Coll suggested that crowdsourced “reputational regulation”, such as with user reviews, might prove a better incentive for commercial companies to behave ethically than more formal regulation.

Evans, meanwhile, believed that EU legislation might inadvertently provide the impetus for a data store-style model to gain popularity. “Regulation coming out of Brussels is going to be a giant comedy anvil landing on business heads if we’re not careful. But it could also be the driver that makes everybody sort this problem out. If it’s easier to do the right thing in new and interesting ways instead of dealing with that horrendous compliance burden, then we could see some progress.”

So rather than the dualism that has defined the debate on consumer data thus far, what’s needed, according to Liz Coll, is tripartism between industry, government and the public. “The most important thing is that consumers are involved in the conversation.”

“The tech exists to link your personal data and to audit it,” said David Evans. “The platforms don’t necessarily support it [yet] but if we were to freeze tech innovation today we could do a million better things with your data without inventing anything new.”

A video summary of Prospect’s data events from the 2015 party conferences can be found below

“How can the British economy get the most out of consumer data?,” a Prospect panel discussion supported by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT took place on Monday 5 October at Manchester Town Hall.

An article authored by David Evans, Director of Policy & Community at BCS introducing the debate can be accessed here.

You can read about the Labour party conference event here.

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