Data-driven innovation has the potential to transform our society and economy. Data-driven technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), can be harnessed to help us tackle complex challenges, from climate change to levelling up the UK’s regions.
But as is so often the case in times of great crisis, Covid-19 has forced us to quickly adapt how we use technology to tackle the pandemic and protect the most vulnerable.
Data has underpinned every step of the UK’s vaccine roll-out – from the genetic data used to develop vaccines, to the secure use of personal data to notify people when it is their turn to get a jab.
Data has not only been used to identify those who should receive the vaccine first, it also helped us to protect the same individuals at the height of the pandemic. For instance, last year, health data was used to help the most at-risk people request food deliveries from supermarkets while shielding from the virus.
And in healthcare, AI has been used extensively to deal with the unprecedented challenges caused by the pandemic. We have seen chatbots used to offer contactless screening of Covid-19 symptoms and confidential support to abuse victims. Behind the scenes, AI has been used to manage the impact of the pandemic on the NHS, helping it to monitor pressure points and deal with the backlog of appointments.
We have seen public support for the use of digital technologies in this crisis, with new research from the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI) showing that almost three-quarters (72%) of the public believe they have the potential to help tackle the pandemic. But there may be more hesitancy when the crisis has abated.
Now is the time to take stock, consider how we can maintain and improve upon the data-driven innovation we have seen, and build the governance that is worthy of the trust of citizens over the long term.
Trust can be fragile and fleeting, but I know from my experience as an entrepreneur working in the data and technology industry that action can be taken to build and maintain it. For example, the adoption of consistent standards and clear governance frameworks can enable organisations to adopt new technologies with confidence, and can help organisations to earn the trust of citizens to provide their data. This is a route to use data for the benefit of businesses and citizens alike.
The CDEI’s research shows that public support for greater use of digital technology is closely related to trust in its governance. This might involve adapting existing governance principles, such as transparency and accountability, to a data-driven age. For example, a large proportion of the public (63%) want to know more about how their personal information is used and shared by the government. There is also currently relatively low knowledge about where to go for help in cases where technology has caused harm.
Fortunately, there are many organisations working to improve data governance in the UK. I am pleased to be on the board of the CDEI, which is doing really important work in partnership with the government and industry. As set out in the government’s National Data Strategy, we have already begun to explore the role of privacy enhancing technologies to give consumers more confidence and control in how their data is used and shared, and we are working with the Government Digital Service as it seeks to develop an approach to making the use of algorithms in the public sector more transparent.
The future prosperity, health and fairness of this country depends on us having the capability to develop, deploy and govern data-driven technologies responsibly, both in an emergency and business-as-usual setting. We stand ready to build on the momentum generated in the pandemic, and double down on efforts to develop a governance regime that is worthy of citizens’ trust. Only then will we be able to fully unlock the transformative potential of data-driven technologies.