In a couple of months, the Administrative Data Task Force chaired by Sir Alan Langlands is due to report. Langlands, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, is working on behalf of the Department of Business Innovation and Skills and the research councils on how the mass of data collected by public agencies about individuals and households might be pressed into more fruitful use.
More intense use of admin data could cut the cost of research and – for example in health – allow better testing of therapies and changes in medical practice.
But the exploitation of ‘personal data’ worries people, amid fears of Big Brother. Professor Ross Anderson fears confidentiality could be breached and our private lives made public knowledge against our wishes.
This is a debate RSS getstats needs to monitor closely. It seems there’s a class of number that the public feel ambiguous about; if alarmed, they might become more suspicious of statistics and impede efforts to promote a ‘numbers mindset’ and enlarged understanding of the necessity and beauty of stats.
Often, debate is confused. Are the numbers collected by the state public or private? In the UK tax records are regarded as highly confidential. In Scandinavia, what citizens owe the state is seen as legitimate public knowledge. Many public services are consumed collectively (public health and safety and education for example), and their statistical base needs to be open and shared.
The public are often very keen to see personal data – for example about people regarded as a threat to the community. The Cameron government, following its predecessor, wants maximum transparency for data from public bodies, as a way of holding them accountable: doesn’t that imply reciprocal transparency, affecting the data they collect from the public?
It feels like we’re on the edge of a new era in the use of administrative data, but that public attitudes are not yet fixed, and there’s a lot of argument yet to be made and won.