Data to the people

This latest report from UK think tank Onward looks at how the UK can use tech and data to weather the coronavirus crisis.

The report, by Onward fellow Leo Rees, argues that the UK should be well-placed to use technology and data to weather the COVID-19 pandemic – given high rates of smartphone penetration and the strength of the e-commerce market. However, low rates of trust around data and identity leave the UK without a robust digital framework to support testing, tracing or medical data-sharing: 94% of people say that trust is important in deciding whether to share personal data; only 13% of the public trust multinational technology companies to handle sensitive health data in a confidential manner, and only 30% trust centralised government; 60% of people think that technology companies should be regulated more, ten times more than the number (6%) who think there is too much regulation. The sharing of personal data is essential for contact testing, tracking and tracing for the next stage of the pandemic. Experts advising the NHS have suggested 80% of smartphone users will need to download the forthcoming NHSX contact tracing app for maximum effectiveness. With the UK government rejecting Apple and Google’s proposed decentralised model, an alternative that balances individual control with a centralised dataset will be needed. To overcome these issues, Onward argues that the Government should urgently introduce a system to let users take greater control over their personal and health data, with greater identity assurance. The recommendations include: Regulate to allow for a new market of “data gatekeepers” that would give people transparency and control over how their data is accessed and used by governments and companies. Individuals would set their permissions and preferences over what data they share, giving them confidence in contact tracing apps and levelling the playing field with online platforms who achieve market dominance by pooling user data. Introduce Government-verified digital ID to support COVID-19 testing, tracing and immunity. The UK is unusual among developed countries in not having an established digital identity market: 98% of Estonians, 92% of Danes and 87% of Finns have a verified digital ID. To make up for lost time, the government should quickly develop a certification scheme for private companies to be certified as a government-approved digital identity provider. The EU Settlement Scheme, through which EU citizens proved their status using the chip in their passport and a phone app, shows that this can be done quickly in a privacy-centric way. Establish a National Data Donor scheme by which people can easily make their data accessible to civic bodies and institutions, such as medical research charities. This would be particularly powerful during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Germany, the “Corona-Datenspende” allows citizens to share an anonymised form of their data from fitness devices with health authorities to better understand the spread of the coronavirus across the country. Spread the value of collectivised data by creating a public data layer. The rapid innovation in harmonising the UK’s health data to track and combat COVID-19 can provide the blueprint for pooling data to combat the other threats we face like climate change, air quality and poverty. A public data layer to which companies, government and citizens contribute will unlock enormous potential for the U.K. to solve huge societal challenges during and after the pandemic.

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