UK citizens unwilling to embrace big data

The public sector could improve services by imitating the private sector’s use of big data, but citizens are overwhelmingly against the idea

The opportunity for government to use big data for improving public services may be quashed by those it is looking to serve, according to a report.

Foresight – the policy group headed by the government’s chief scientific adviser Professor Sir John Beddington – has released a study on the future of identity, discussing its findings on how changes in technology, politics, economics and the environment could affect the way people think of the concept.

A large portion of the report focused on technology, including the way social networking had brought together the separate notions of an offline and online persona and how cyber crime was inhibiting adoption of certain online services, but it also drew attention to big data.

“Over the next 10 years it is likely that the ability to aggregate and ‘mine’ large data sets will become even more widely used for a variety of purposes, for example to gain a better understanding of consumer preferences, and to provide more personalised products and services,” read the report.

Governments may be able to utilise ‘big data’ to provide improved public services by sharing information, but public responses to this possibility are mixed

The Future of Identity report, Foresight

However, while the study saw the private sector using it to its strengths for marketing products and services in real-time and even with location-based information, it showed the public perception of gathering such large amounts of data had put governments off from taking advantage.

“Governments may be able to utilise ‘big data’ to provide improved public services by sharing information, but public responses to this possibility are mixed,” it read.

Referencing data from a survey by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, it found 31% of citizens thought it was a bad idea for governments to collect and store data about them and share it between other government departments, with the number rising to 34% who thought it was a very bad idea. Only 6% said it was a very good idea.

Citizens were keener on the idea of medical records being held by a central computer, rather than being stored by GPs or hospitals, with 13% calling it a very good idea and 26% saying it was a good idea. However, this still left 26% and 29% saying it was a bad or very bad idea.

Security of personal data

The Foresight report said questions needed to be answered for the use of big data to be trusted.

“The proliferation, synthesis and exploitation of ‘big data’ sets by the private sector raises questions over who ‘owns’ and can access the data, with implications for personal privacy and liberty,” it read. “Digital information is already a commodity which can be traded, sometimes without the consent or even knowledge of the individual.”

The report claimed this misuse of data could even go as far as to put people off from engaging with the online world.

“The growing value of digital information has started to attract increasing criminal attention, such as for use in identity fraud, while there are concerns over private sector use or misuse of this data,” it continued. “This could cause some people to withdraw from the digital environment, or reduce their trust in online transactions.”

But, the report determined that the UK “needs to be considered as much a part of the virtual world as a real place” and must get involved in these technologies.

“The increasing speed and connectivity of information technology systems offers opportunities for monitoring what is happening in real time, and assessing the effectiveness of specific policies,” it concluded. “For policy makers, understanding the changing nature of identity in the UK will be increasingly important for effective policy making and implementation.

“Failure to do so may lead to missed opportunities to, for example, strengthen social integration, reduce exclusion, enhance open policy making, and make effective use of identities as a resource.”


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