Like many viewers, we found ourselves watching Netflix documentary ‘The Great Hack’ with a growing sense of unease.
The documentary charts the rise and fall of Cambridge Analytica and the apparent role it played in the 2016 US elections and Brexit. It reveals how the agency harnessed Facebook user data - in unauthorised and potentially illegal ways - to attempt to influence voters with targeted adverts of a political nature.
It also examines the potential of big data to broker global disruption, abuse privacy and enact anti-democratic change.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal is a pretty terrifying example of the misuse of private data that has lead to many people deleting their social media accounts in a bid to gain control of their online information (all too late, but that’s a topic for another blog). It’s kick-started a global conversation around data privacy and sparked the #OwnYourData movement, which demands that data rights be considered a human right.
In the words of former Cambridge Analytica employee, Brittany Kaiser: "Last year data surpassed oil in value. Data is the most valuable asset on earth."
We’re living in the age of data
Data has so much potential to bring about change. It’s therefore no surprise that, like anything with enormous power, it is open to abuse.
But let’s not rush to demonise data.
Working within and around government, we regularly see the other side of the story: data being used for the good of the people.
At Velocitii, we’re fascinated by the potential of big data and one of our core goals is to support government in using data to bring about positive change.
There’s a growing movement, both in the UK and abroad, that’s pushing for open data and data rights for citizens. Organisations such as the Open Government Partnership have been set up to 'ensure that governments do not become data monopolies', by pushing for open data policies and practices.
Meanwhile, in the private sector, OpenOwnership is an organisation fighting for greater corporate transparency worldwide, by making it easy to publish and access high-quality data about who owns a company and thus make it harder for 'corrupt individuals to hide'.
Governments around the world have a huge responsibility to their citizens to properly manage and regulate how data is used, stored and shared. Data is being gathered in such huge quantities and at such great speed that it is essential this information is stored and used properly - and transparently - to maintain public trust.
The Canadian federal government is leading the charge by making any data they collect open by default to citizens and organisations - and many other countries are expected to follow suit.
Let’s look at a few examples of how data is being used in the public sector for the greater good:
Data for anti-corruption
While data can corrupt, it also has the power to assist in the fight against corruption on a global scale.
Data can hand power back to citizens, providing transparency, promoting integrity and encouraging accountability.
Big data (large, varied datasets) and open data (publicly available datasets) are important sources of information for anticorruption. During the Massec Fonseca scandal of 2016, data analytics companies helped investigative journalists sift through over 11.5 million documents to track the dealings of offshore companies using tax havens to hide wealth, and subsequently release the Panama Papers.
In the UK, GDS is helping to tackle global corruption through the Global Digital Marketplace Programme, working with international governments to make their procurement data and processes more transparent and boost their digital, data and technology sectors.
Velocitii Managing Director, Michael Horrigan, played a central role in moving the program from the Scoping phase through Discovery and into Alpha. Michael is using the lessons he learned during this time to support our government clients on data transparency, procurement reform, international anticorruption and DDaT transformation.
Data for transformation
Alison Pritchard, Director General of GDS recently announced in a blog post that “a big push on data analytics, digital identity and embedding of innovation” will be a priority for the organisation.
In recent years we’ve already seen major digital transformations at HMRC, DWP and the Home Office that have made it possible for citizens to report, declare and register themselves digitally.
Data visualisation and analytics can play a vital role in supporting decision-making across government and transforming organisational ways of working to improve efficiency.
"Data can enable government to do existing things more cheaply, do existing things better and do new things we don't currently do."
The potential for technology to transform the services provided by local councils is significant. For example, councils can use data from citizens to understand how they can make better use of their resources to improve how people navigate and experience public spaces.
Transport for London is currently using depersonalised WiFi data to better understand the flow of passengers throughout it’s network and provide up-to-date information on crowding and other guidance.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government has recently been engaging with PropTech companies building valuable products and services on top of public data. These companies are creating more transparency and efficiency across many aspects of the housing market, from helping SME builders identify small sites to helping landowners to better understand the development potential of their land.
Meanwhile, geospatial data analytics allows local authorities to optimise day-to-day services such as rubbish collection routes.
It’s predicted that, by the end of 2019, 40 percent of local and regional governments will be using the Internet of Things (IoT) to turn infrastructure like roads, streetlights and traffic signals into assets. IoT and 'smart cities' produce data that can be used to improve spending on public infrastructure, allowing national and regional governments to come up with creative solutions that give citizens more bang for their tax-paying buck.
Data for better public services
Combining open data with advances in digital technology can be a powerful thing.
From making it easier for businesses and individuals to manage their tax information, to improving our healthcare by helping to improve medical diagnoses, the UK government has been an early leader in the open data movement.
The UK Government has made over 300,000 non-personal data sets available, in machine-readable formats and for no cost, allowing private companies and government departments to develop apps and services that can improve the lives of British citizens.
Data can be used in many areas to help officials make better decisions. For example, when planning new services, teams can combine demographic data about service users and their needs on a map with data from internal systems to identify trends and patterns.
As well as improving public services, data can also be used to protect citizens. Earlier this year, MI5 announced plans to share more data with local public sector agencies, including the NHS and social services, in a bid to combat terrorism.
But as with all data use, transparency is the key; giving the public and businesses the ability to request access to the information that the government is storing on them at any time.
At Velocitii, we’re excited to see how government and local authorities will evolve their use of data to not only provide better services to citizens, but to drive positive change and encourage trust. Velocitii is also starting to work with local authorities on how best to securely store and protect their data through our Velocitii Cyber team.
Share your examples of how the public sector is using data to bring about positive change with us by using the Twitter hashtag #dataforpositivechange.
Here are some great links if you’re interested in reading more about government use of data: