Big data use requires public buy-in

Dame Diane Robertson has gone from caring for Auckland's homeless to figuring out how to harness the power of data for good. She speaks about why the plan won't work unless the public are convinced first.

Big data is big news.

As technology continues its relentless march, questions are being raised about how the data that is generated can be harnessed while protecting the public.

In New Zealand, the Government is a driving force behind increasing the use of data.

Its social investment approach, championed by Prime Minister Bill English, is aimed at improving and increasing targeted funding.

But recently it hit a snag, after the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) demanded NGOs hand over detailed client information before receiving new funding.

The move didn’t go down well and led to the Privacy Commissioner investigating and eventually releasing a scathing report into MSD’s approach.

It was a problem compounded by a revelation from Social Development Minister Anne Tolley that the IT system set up to collect the data had been found to contain a gaping hole which could lead to a potential privacy breach.

All this was bad publicity, but behind the scenes work is underway to figure out exactly how New Zealand can best use, and protect, this information.

The Data Futures Partnership is funded by the Government to work with citizens, the private sector, and non-government organisations to improve New Zealand’s data use.

On their website, the Partnership estimates data-driven innovation contributed $2.4 billion to gross value added in New Zealand in 2014.

But if New Zealand innovators were moving at the same rate as Australian businesses, it’s estimated that figure would be $4.8b annually.

Having emerged from the Data Futures Forum, set up by English and former Statistics Minister Maurice Williamson, the Partnership has spent the past few months consulting with the public to gauge their appetite for data use.

Dame Diane Robertson, chairwoman of the Data Futures Partnership, speaks at an event organised by the Privacy Commissioner. Photo: Shane Cowlishaw

Dame Diane Robertson, a former Auckland City Missioner, became chairwoman of the Partnership after stepping down from her previous role.

Her involvement in big data includes collecting and analysing data for the Family 100 project, one of the country’s most important pieces of work on families living in poverty.

Speaking in Wellington at an event organised by the Privacy Commissioner, Robertson said the amount of data available was astronomical and all sources needed to be considered when thinking about how it could be used for the benefit of the country.

“I live in Auckland and everyone thinks we’re an arrogant bunch of people who don’t know there’s anything past the Bombay Hills and I have to say when I come and work in Wellington, Wellington assumes there’s nothing past Government data.”

When determining how data could be collected and used, you have to think about the “social licence” needed for its use, she said, referring to whether there was general acceptance by the public that it was OK.

Robertson gave examples of divorce and gay marriage, two things that in the past society deemed unacceptable but had now been given a "social licence".

Currently the public are considering issues such as the medical use of cannabis and euthanasia, which could also eventually be granted a similar licence, she said.

“As people [get older] they go 'actually, I don’t want people to know I had an abortion when I was 17, I don’t want an employer to open up my file and know I was a failure at school…I don’t want someone to know I have an HIV status or a mental health one'."

The same applies to data use, but can only be considered on a case by case basis.

Robertson referred to a piece of research work the Partnership had just completed with Massey University, where they spoke to 27 different slices of society, including children and the homeless, about their attitude towards data and privacy.

One interesting finding was that people felt comfortable about their data being used by certain agencies and not others; for example, people were happy for the medical industry to access their data but were more concerned about trusting education institutes.

There was also a public perception that older people were ignorant about protecting their data compared to younger generations, but this was far from the truth.

“Older people are very savvy about their information, because that’s what data is, it’s information about them. They’ve experienced life events when their data has been shared, there’s been breaches, something’s happened and they worry about themselves being identified, they worry about their children and their grandchildren. Young people who are technically savvy are very data ignorant; I get great value therefore I will give….and never actually thinking ‘I’m getting a free service but I’m giving my data’.

“As people [get older] they go 'actually, I don’t want people to know I had an abortion when I was 17, I don’t want an employer to open up my file and know I was a failure at school…I don’t want someone to know I have an HIV status or a mental health one' – mental health was a real issue for a lot of people.”

Robertson touched on the privacy pushback MSD had encountered, saying the problem was there was no clear purpose provided for why the data was needed.

A broad statement alone was not good enough and the Partnership was working with the organisation to clarify this.

Robertson said people had real concerns about how data collection would impact on both themselves and their families, something that had been highlighted when talking to Auckland’s homeless population during their research.

“They straight away said ‘how are algorithms going to be used? We hear that parole could be done by an algorithm, how could that work? What happens, Diane, if the algorithm says you can’t be released because you’re a really bad person and everything says that, but last week I found God and I’m moving on with my life?’

“Where does the human story get put with the data?” Robertson asked.

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