Can consumer data be a force for good?

This is a consumer issue on which a Labour government would take an active regulatory role

October 16, 2015
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Scroll to the bottom to find a summary video of Prospect's data events from the 2015 party conferences 

The question of how consumer data can best be used as a force for economic good is rising up the political agenda. It was the subject of a lively and engaging debate at the Labour Party Conference hosted by BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, and Prospect on 29th September. Discussing the power of personal data and the best way that business can benefit from it were Chi Onwurah MP, Shadow Minister for Culture & Digital Economy, David Evans, Director of Policy & Community at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT and Liz Coll, Digital Policy Manager at Citizens Advice Bureau. The debate was chaired by Serena Kutchinsky, Digital Editor of Prospect Magazine.

While the stories making the headlines around the world focus on the negative effects of big data—the malicious hacks and privacy scares such as the now notorious Ashley Madison attack—what’s less well known is the positive impact big data in its myriad forms can have on our professional and private lives. While surveys regularly indicate that two thirds of the population in the UK will share data if there is a perceived personal benefit, for example music-streaming services using profiles to suggest music, they are more wary about sharing personal data for more obviously commercial purposes.

“At the moment there is a general sense of unease," said Liz Coll. “About 69 per cent of British consumers find it creepy the way organisations use our data… there is a sense of mistrust which is quite deeply rooted, but it’s complicated as it doesn’t stop consumers using those services… A more sensible conversation about what we want [from data services] is needed.”

The idea being put forward by David Evans was for a personal data store that would house consumer data pertaining to various aspects of people's lives. He highlighted the need for consumers to feel in control of their data saying; “It’s really important not to see 50,000 privacy settings and mistake that for control.” Tech companies have a crucial role to play in helping the “derisking” of this process he continued, drawing a comparison with the way that banks have managed to make consumers feel safe about storing their money with them.

“Some people say data is the new oil,” said Chi Onwurah. “I’m not so keen on that comparison, but it’s the driving energy behind so many businesses of the future which are start ups now. We need to understand who owns it and how it should be transferred, otherwise we are not creating a level playing field for new companies—the companies that will succeed will be those with the most lawyers."

This is a consumer issue on which a Labour government would take an active regulatory role—seeking to create an ethical and legislative framework for the control and transfer of public sector data. Onwurah agreed that a data store which held everything from health to energy data was a step in the right direction but voiced concern over it being contained in the cloud. “The technology is there,” she said. “Now, it’s about getting the right environment and regulation in place so that the private sector can innovate and deliver the right applications.”

Despite this consensus among the panel, there was still much debate over what shape the consumer experience should take in the digital age. Liz Coll highlighted several key concerns that Citizen’s Advice has: “While we would all like the benefits of personalisation what does that mean in terms of being discriminated against for certain services? What does it mean for our insurance policies if a Fitbit is tracking us all the time?”

These questions go right to the core of the fears and fallacies that are all too often perpetuated by the media. The panel agreed that government has a responsibility to help create a positive narrative around data sharing. The example given by Onwurah was that of Apple who sought to calm consumer worries that the tech giant would have access to data stored in personal fitness apps on their new smart watches by projecting the words “we will not hold your data” on to a massive screen at their UK launch. The Department of Health has much to learn from this dynamic approach.

The audience then quizzed the panellists on a range of issues. The regulation question was of particular interest, as was the possibility of legislation being passed for data property rights. The mood was one of optimism and excitement for the future, despite the fact that much is still uncertain. As David Evans said in an earlier piece for Prospect:This is an industry waiting for the right environment, and just as the UK’s law, culture and practice has given this small island a dominant position in global finance, the UK is uniquely placed to dominate this new industry if it gets its act together. There are smart entrepreneurial people in the UK right now working to make this happen. They need to be heard and understood by lawmakers and bricks-and-mortar businesses, and we need to take this opportunity while it is still fresh. Leaders, take note.”

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 Tuesday 29 September 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 Conservative party conference event here.