Should Governments Be Data-Optimists?


Should Governments Be Data-Optimists?

By Sam Gilbert

The 2010s were a decade of increasing pessimism about data. The NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the ways even democratically-elected governments were electronically surveilling their own citizens, while influential scholars such as Shoshana Zuboff challenged the legitimacy of big tech companies’ data-driven business models. Both the scope of the EU’s landmark General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the sanctions set out in it suggested individual privacy and rights over data deserved precedence over government efficiency and business growth.

Data Optimism and Covid Management

Covid has led to an abrupt re-evaluation. Technocratic governments in Asia have shown themselves to be better able to manage the crisis than Western liberal democracies with stronger commitments to civil liberties. Community mobility and internet search data made available by Apple, Google, and Microsoft has given policymakers and epidemiologists vital insights into public compliance with social distancing guidelines and the emergence of new outbreaks. At the same time, periods of lockdown (while welcome and necessary) have provided a daily reminder that there are many other freedoms than data privacy.

In the UK, government is generally deemed to be failing with Test and Trace, while succeeding with the vaccine rollout. Seeking to explain this apparent contradiction, The Centre for Policy Studies’ Robert Colvile points to the role of databases. While Test and Trace effectively requires the mapping of social networks from scratch, the vaccine rollout builds on a robust dataset that already exists – NHS Patient Records. In this context, it’s not surprising to hear Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, suggesting the time has come for a data-optimist turn in public policy: “After years of seeing data solely through the lens of risk”, he writes, “Covid-19 has taught us just how much we have to lose when we don’t use it.”

Why Data Openness Could Bring Public Benefits

This is also a key argument of my new book, Good Data. In it, I make the case for putting more data (rather than less) into the public domain – citizens’ data, companies’ data, and governments’ data. The socially-useful applications of this data go way beyond optimising governments’ Covid responses, ranging from new start-up ventures to anti-corruption to psychological well-being. Inspiring examples of the benefits of data openness include the Citymapper app (enabled by local governments creating reliable feeds of public transport data) and Opportunity Insights’ work on reducing economic inequality (made possible by the availability of large volumes of anonymised tax record data). I pay particular attention to anonymised internet search data from Google and Microsoft. A vast repository of insight into humanity’s needs, desires, hopes, and fears, search data is already a source of competitive advantage in the commercial realm – but its potential to inform policymaking and social science research is untapped. In my opinion, the privacy risks of data openness (though real and requiring responsible management) are outweighed by the huge public benefits that it can bring.

Search data is already a source of competitive advantage in the commercial realm – but its potential to inform policymaking and social science research is untapped.

My optimism about data is, however, conditional. Digital technology has unleashed new forms of power, with disruptive effects on institutions and the public sphere. Another contribution of Good Data is to theorize digital power, and show how it might come to be legitimate. Leaving behind the moralizing arguments of many critics of big tech, and the ideological assertions of tech CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg and Palantir’s Alex Karp, Good Data offers a practical framework policymakers and political representatives can use to evaluate tech companies’ legitimacy. Digital power is multifaceted, and won’t be tamed with the familiar tools of competition law and data protection alone. Balanced judgements about how to regulate tech companies will be required if data’s exciting potential as a source of public value is to be fulfilled.    

Sam Gilbert is an Advisor at StateUp. His book, Good Data: An Optimist’s Guide to Our Digital Future, is out on 1 April.