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MPs launch inquiry into government use of data

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee is to investigate the possibility of reforming the way government collects and analyses data, and whether the UK census could be scrapped

MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) have launched an inquiry into how government can use data to improve policies, the use of data for the UK census, and whether current privacy protections are adequate.

The committee wants to investigate how government and civil servants use new and innovative data sources to make decisions and look at opportunities for reforming the current system.

This includes looking at whether demands for data are changing and how official statistics and analysis are currently produced It also includes whether governments can successfully share data across departments, as well as looking at how other countries successfully produce and collect statistics. PACAC wants to investigate how users official statistics and analysis wish to access the data and who the data should serve.

The inquiry will also look at the ethical use of data, and what that entails in the context of analysis and statistics and whether the current processes and privacy protections are sufficient, or whether they need an overhaul. With new sources of data and information, and new ways of collecting them crop up, the committee wants to be sure the privacy of the data subjects is protected.

Commenting on the current data landscape, PACAC chair William Wragg said: “Both inside and outside government, has changed dramatically in recent years, with sources multiplying exponentially.

“In this data deluge, how can governments make sense of the numbers and improve the lives of the general public? The inquiry we’re launching today will question how statisticians and analysts can draw meaningful conclusions for government from the mass of data we generate every day,” he said.

“There are already a range of innovative projects underway across government, ranging from the use of shipping data to enhance evidence on trade flows, to the potential of anonymised and aggregated phone data to improve travel statistics. We will explore both the opportunities and the dangers presented by new data sources, questioning how demands for evidence are changing, what it means to use data ethically, and whether existing privacy protections are sufficient.”

As well as looking at the use of data, the committee wants to follow up on comments made by the national statistician Ian Diamond, who wrote in an opinion piece for The Times newspaper that the 10-yearly UK census could be made obsolete due to modern data collection. The notion is not a new one. In 2010, the then Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said the census was both expensive and inefficient.

However, a 2014 report by the Public Administration Committee (now renamed the PACAC), warned against scrapping the census, saying it was “too soon”, adding: “The alternative options for the collection of population statistics have not been adequately tested and plans are not sufficiently advanced to provide a proper replacement, given the importance of the resulting data.”

The committee now wants to investigate whether the age of the census is over, and what new sources of data are available to government statisticians, as well as whether the current processes and protections are efficient.

In a November 2022 Computer Weekly opinion piece, deputy national statistician Alison Pritchard wrote that the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) Integrated Data Service (IDS) will provide the next step in the data sharing journey, where, “ in a far more advanced form, government will have the ability to work with data at source – in a safe and secure environment – rather than moving data around, which currently creates friction and significant cost”.

She said it will see ready-to-use datasets made available to “cross-government teams and wider research communities, enabling them to securely share, link and access them for vital research”.

“The service is a collaboration among institutions to work on projects that shed light on some of the big challenges of the day, and to provide the ability to answer questions that we don’t yet know we need to answer.”

The IDS is currently open to a limited number of government analysts while the service is being developed and tested further. The ONS aims to begin moving users from the old service onto IDS during summer 2023.

Read more about the government and data:

  • The Smart Data Council aims to find ways to use and encourage uptake of smart data to make it easier to switch utility providers and save money.
  • Designed in close collaboration with technology businesses, the UK government is re-introducing an updated version of its Data Protection and Digital Information Bill to Parliament.
  • Data sharing: How can we make sure the UK is a world leader?

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