Data wars: why councils must win public trust on personal data

From viral personality quizzes to seamless shopping experiences, big tech has long known the value of collecting data from consumers. Now the public sector must catch up, says Lewis Sheldrake 

Remember those quizzes that used to do the rounds on Facebook? ‘Which Harry Potter Character Are You? or ‘What Will You Look Like in 15 Years?’

Those of us who took part were giving away our data in droves, either consciously or without noticing or even minding. We got some sort of entertainment or gimmick in exchange for insight into our browsing habits. That was the transaction, whether we realised it or not.

Things have moved on. Today, simply for convenience, most people feel comfortable sharing their biometric information with big tech in exchange for a speedier login or one-button purchase option. This is even after the Cambridge Analytica revelations. But while the public seems reasonably happy sharing data – even their most sensitive personal information – with commercial enterprises, there’s a very different level of confidence and trust when it comes to letting Government (including local government) track behavioural indicators in a way that may ultimately allow us to deliver better outcomes for people.

You might let Apple scan your retina but would you be happy for your town hall to use facial recognition to identify and prosecute people littering the town centre? I would argue most of us would be pretty uncomfortable with that, and objections might include how information will be used, who might have access, and how secure it is. At the heart of this is the question of trust, resources and our basic human rights. 

Why does the gulf between what we comfortably share with commercial enterprises and local government matter?

People within councils who don’t know a great deal about care technology will talk about an advert they’ve seen on TV, maybe for a smart speaker turning the lights off or on for someone with reduced mobility.

That’s the starting point for many people’s understanding of the role tech can play to improve lives. While consumer tech has its place in terms of entertainment, social interaction and supporting daily living, the real opportunity for Government is using the data such devices aggregate, and what they tell us about peoples’ behaviours.

It’s this information that will help us provide much more agile social care provision at an individual level: intervene early before a crisis occurs and plan better services longer term, grounded in the information about real people’s lives.

How we collate data from passive devices is going to be crucial as it’ll be used to determine what level of care people need, when they need it, and how it can be flexed to fit people’s personal circumstance. This opportunity was unimaginable even ten years ago. 

But while back-end digital data flow is going to be every bit as valuable as the front-end contact and support, it’s a harder sell.

When you can say ‘Here’s a device you can speak to your family or carer on, that can remind you to take your medicines on time, play your favourite Beatles tracks and raise help if you fall’, then yeah, people will get it. If you then say ‘these devices will also collect data that will help us ensure you are receiving the right care’ that shifts the conversation.

Some people will be happy, some won’t. The household activity passive sensors can monitor – door openings, sleep patterns, ambient temperature, kettle usage – will be nothing like as sensitive as the information CCTV or your neighbour’s smart doorbell accumulates every time we leave our front door, but the challenge will be to assure people that passive devices collecting data work in their interests, not against them.

That sits on a knife edge at times; it only takes one story about invasion of privacy or a data breach to really undermine the application of technology in the public sector.

We as a council could potentially be perceived to be implicated and that’s a big risk.

It’s hard, but we have a unique opportunity here in the public sector because a lot of the work – the development, the innovation, the design of devices – has been done for us.

We don’t have to build from the ground up from scratch; big tech is taking a greater interest and we can benefit from the expertise.

We have thousands of residents in Barking and Dagenham who are in receipt of care and support who would benefit from a gentle reminder to drink a glass of water, make a cup of tea or have something to eat, not to mention the peace of mind this would give their loved ones.

However, by virtue of smart phones and smart fridges the likes of Google and Amazon may already know not just if they’ve eaten breakfast, but what they had for it. The level of data collation and aggregation is already out there: it’s just a case of how we can harness the capability to apply it in a social care context.

Big Tech can help the well to live well, Care Tech can help the less well to live better.

Local government and our partners need to understand the infinite possibilities that harnessing the benefits data and technology can bring to people’s lives and the design of services.

However, this will only be achievable if they can be transparent, ethical and enter into meaningful dialogue with local people, and ultimately win the trust and confidence of residents so they can recognise what they’re set to gain.  

Lewis Sheldrake is social care lead commissioner in innovation at Barking and Dagenham Council.

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