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Where to draw the Line in Use of Personal Data? A New Experiment to understand Public Acceptance and a Call for Help

Today – sometimes knowingly, most of the time almost certainly not – people share, or depending on your point of view, give away, the data they create simply as a result of passing through a normal day. This data is drawn from a wide array of sources, in both the public and private sectors, in the digital world, down at the supermarket or jumping on a bus.  Sometimes it is passed to data aggregators who package it up and often sell it.  What is utterly certain is that the range of uses to which data can be put – for commercial gain and/or public good – is growing, raising tricky questions as it does so.  To support the development a Framework for Data Science Ethics, the Government’s Data Science Partnership commissioned interesting work on how the public responds to the trade-offs between getting the best answers to knotty policy issues and the legal and ethical issues (e.g. privacy and disclosure) which can emerge in data science exercises (LODA pilot participants please take note).  Ipsos MORI, the researchers involved in this work, provide further backdrop in the form of a project carried out for the Royal Statistical Society which points to a data trust deficit in a range of settings.   Throw in associated issues like monetisation, and the issue of public acceptance of data usage is one that is all of fiendishly complex, relatively unexplored, and coming with a somewhat chequered past.

Back to the future though. As the range of potential uses (e.g. wearables and IoT) expands, and citizens and their households are increasingly behind generating large amounts of the data collected and used in the city, it is important that we take the debate on how this data is used, and to what ends, to those who are seemingly more comfortable sharing data having grown up in a digital world, as well as those less open to persuasion.  This is why a chapter of the London City Data Strategy is dedicated to Public Acceptance.

Of course, for all the apparent public comfort and squeamishness around data sharing, and a broad church in terms of knowledge of the issues at play, there is both a strong business benefit associated with the digitisation of public services it allows, and indeed progress in supporting regulation.  This blog from Councillor Theo Blackwell at Camden Council tells you all you need know about how digital and data driven services can be a significant, modernising force in the pursuit of efficient, 21st century public sector services.  Further, a raft of new regulations is coming into force over the next two years, including a European data protection directive (the EUGDPR), new UK rules around open banking, and the MiData initiative for energy and telecommunications companies. These regulations promise to give the individual easier access to the data held about them and stronger rights to control how it is used.

It is with all of the above in mind that we are launching a ‘London Data Exchange’ experiment.  In summary, we will be providing members of the public with their own personal datastores – secure environments in which they can control use of their personal data and test their reaction to its use in a range of use cases from both the public and private sector.  The London Data Exchange will give people digital tools so they can request and store data held about them. These tools will also provide easy interfaces to enable the individual to share their data with organisations of their choice, and revoke their permissions if they no longer want to share data with a particular organisation.  In short, people will be empowered to have better control over their data.

The “London Data Exchange” has the potential to improve the lives of millions of Londoners. By way of illustration: Today about 4% of the population struggle to gain the trust of organisations they want to interact with, as they have little history with the credit reference agencies, these are known as “thin fillers”. This largely excludes them from banking, contract mobile phones and some types of property rental. Now imagine if we could use the London Data Exchnage to give them back the data held by all the organisations they interact with. A business from which they want a service could ask their permission to look at some of their data, to calculate their risk level. Another type of benefit could be automating form filling, where instead the citizen gives an organisation permission to access their data enabling the form to be automatically populated. This enables a better customer experience and a reduction in costly form processing. The list of different benefits flowing from empowering the citizen to “take back control of their data”, could be very long!

We also expect new privacy preserving services to be developed on the back of the London Data Exchange. For example, today we might use our driving license to prove our age. Yet that involves sharing our name, address, photo and date of birth, when all that’s needed is to demonstrate that we are over 18 years of age. The new infrastructure will enable services to be developed to issue “digital tokens of proof” that a citizen can use to demonstrate things about them, without having to share more data than is necessary.  Such tokens enable more robust, privacy preserving and user friendly services in both the public and private sector.

So, to ‘the ask’. We are sure that the London Data Exchange presents a significant opportunity to London’s public services.  We want Boroughs and other public service partners to help with the development of solid and very real use cases, which are applicable to their own settings and which can be tested out on members of the Talk London Digital Community.From use cases that help us deal with public health management more effectively, that allow for the more efficient and tailored delivery of social care (and indeed a much broader range of services), to examples of how trust-based relationships around data usage can lead to single sources of identification, less form-filling, reductions in error and fraud, and more efficient and cost-effective business processes, these will be of use to individual authorities.  Importantly, they will be based in the ‘reality’ of the customer, which is too often missing in technology discussions, which may assume that good practices such as privacy by design are sufficient on their own to address customer concerns .

If you want to be involved in this ground breaking project that will merge public attitudes research with an exciting and detailed experiment to put (control of) personal data in the hands of citizens, do bring forward your thinking and potential use cases. To register your interest and to take part in exploratory sessions in the weeks beginning October 3rd and 10th, please get in touch with the GLA project officer (, or the Synaps Digital[1] project office at

[1] Synaps Digital, a strategic digital advisory firm, has been appointed to undertake the design of the London Data Exchange. With a track record of innovation in data creation and exchange, as well as a focus on the creation of commercial and social value from this innovation, we are excited to have them on board for this project.