New governance needed for data use in 21st century

The UK government has been urged to set up a public body to oversee data use by the authors of a new report published by the Royal Society and the British Academy.

The report calls for the establishment of a new, independent body to steward an overall framework that can safeguard public confidence and ensure that the potential benefits of data use such as improved public services, better healthcare and business innovation are fully realised.

Data Management and Use: Governance in the 21st Century says that data usage, data collection and management are increasingly intertwined, and new ways of using data make it difficult to define which data is sensitive.

It found that, while the current governance architecture provides a lot of what is needed to deal with these challenges, there are clear gaps and too many silos, such that tensions between how individual and collective benefits and risks are negotiated are not always identified and addressed in a transparent and inclusive way.

First among the recommendations is the adoption of a set of high level principles to guide future data governance. It proposes an over-arching principle that systems that govern data need to promote human flourishing, focusing on ensuring that data is used to serve individuals and communities. The principles are:

  • Protect individual and collective rights and interests
  • Ensure trade-offs affected by data management and data use are made transparently, accountably and inclusively
  • Seek out good practices and learn from success and from failure
  • Enhance existing democratic governance

The second recommendation is the creation of an independent body to steward the governance landscape as a whole. This body would anticipate, monitor and evaluate the management and usage of data, build practices and set standards and provide clarity and propose solutions where tensions arise. It would steward, rather than replace, a range of existing public and private actors such as the Information Commissioner’s Office and those in the health sector. It would be led by experts from across disciplines including those who could represent the public interest. It would be UK focused but globally relevant and exchange good practice with other countries.

The report stresses that any form of governance needs to be specific to context recognising that, for example, the benefits and risks of use of data in online shopping are different to data being used in a healthcare context. Rather than restricting innovation, the report finds that a clearly defined framework setting out acceptable uses of data would give stakeholders the confidence to explore new technologies and enable society to reap the benefits that these technologies can deliver.

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser FRS, Chair of the Royal Society Science Policy Advisory Group and Co-Chair of the report, said: “We have reached a stage where most aspects of our day-to-day lives generate data that is collected, presenting opportunities for various actors to use this information. Many of the ways in which the data is used lead to positive impacts for us and wider society. However, the rapid rate of change in this area requires a new approach to governance that can keep pace, ensuring that the risks and benefits of new applications can be debated in a transparent and inclusive way.”

She added: “History shows us that societies need to act early to create well-founded responses to rapid technological change. A principle-based approach to data governance can provide direction and stewardship during a potentially disruptive period of transition.”

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