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Royal Society targets summer completion of Whitehall data governance review

Neil Merrett Published 23 February 2017

Investigation currently being conducted with the British Academy is expected to focus on facilitating more context-based negotiation around using data in public sector


The Royal Society hopes by the summer to have completed an investigation into the governance and ethics of data use in Whitehall that will aim to set out the methodology for a more context-based approach to information sharing in the public sector.

The organisation, which services as an independent body of UK scientific expertise, said that rather than trying to solve each individual dilemma around balancing ethics with the operational benefits of data sharing, its study would look at how to ensure the best means to negotiate ongoing concerns between the public and data experts about consent.

The timeline was announced at the 2017 UK France Data Summit held today in London that brought together the French and UK governments, as well as public and private sector figures from both countries, to look at broad issues over the importance, protection and privacy of data and its role as a form of critical infrastructure.

In a week where the UK’s Civil Service chief spoke of a need for obtaining and retaining “public confidence” in how the government is able to collect and make use of a broad array of information, including confidential and personal details, ethics was a key focus for the event.

On the back of the government’s decision, based on privacy concerns, to scrap the NHS England programme that sought to collect data from GP records to inform care, consent has been viewed as a key challenge for the public sector.

The Royal Society and British Academy are jointly conducting an independent investigation into the use of government data and how it is managed.

As opposed to providing a single solution for the public to choose to allow their data to be used by government, Claire Craig, the Royal Society’s director of science policy, said the investigation was looking instead at conditions for how questions about consent can be negotiated safely for different purposes. This would include public sector use.

“One of the points which I think is important to make is that all of the history of the implications of new technologies and public dialogue that has come out of this area shows that people will tend to be very specific and contextualised in the judgements they choose to make [about sharing data],” she said.

Craig argued that a decision from an individual about giving their consent to use personal information would be different in nature depending on their context, for example in terms of healthcare or to use a private sector app.

“What [the investigation] will aim to do is say what are the conditions in which questions about consent can be negotiated safely across all the different domains?”

Building on previous work in cyber security, Craig said that ensuring secure database systems was one component of broader questions on how societies might want data to be governed by authorities and other organisations.

“The questions of ethics are deeply intertwined with broader notions of use and norms, of regulation and law and practice. They need to be thought of both in terms of principle, but also very much in practice and reality,” she said.

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