Looking after and using data for public benefit

Improved access to datasets, including those held by other government bodies, will allow ONS to advance its mission of providing the UK with better statistics for better decisions.  But with new data- sharing powers comes a heightened responsibility to protect personal information.  As revised policies on the use, management and security of data are published Heather Savory explains how ONS is putting the public interest first.

Official Statistics are for the benefit of society and the economy and help Britain to make better decisions. They allow the formulation of better public policy and the effective measurement of those policies. They inform the direction of economic and commercial activities. They provide valuable information for analysts, researchers, public and voluntary bodies. They enable the public to hold organisations that spend public money to account, thus informing democratic debate.

The ability to harness the power of data is critical in enabling official statistics to support the most important decisions facing the country.

Under the new powers in the Digital Economy Act , ONS can now gain access to new and different sources of data including ‘administrative’ data from government departments and commercial data. Alongside the availability of these new data sources ONS is experiencing a strong demand for ad hoc insights alongside our traditional statistics.

We need to deliver more, faster, finer-grained insights into the economy and society. We need to deliver high quality, trustworthy information, on a faster timescale, to help decision-making. We will increasingly develop innovative data analysis methods, for example using images to gain insight from the work we’ve recently announced on Urban Forests.

We want to reassure all our data providers and users that we’re protecting their data and using it ethically.

While we’ll continue to fully protect the personal data we hold, we’ll work increasingly in partnerships and in the open; sharing and comparing new techniques with others to help develop wider Data Science skills.

ONS’s goal is to enable as much public value as possible to be generated from the wide variety and volume of data available to us. So we’re ramping up our ability to facilitate access to linked/anonymised data to approved researchers in strictly controlled circumstances.

The new data sources we can access come in many forms and need to be combined in different ways for different types of analysis. So we’re working to facilitate the processing and analysis of more data in richer and more complex forms and provide our statisticians and analysts with the latest tools and technologies.

ONS data has always been securely held and properly used but, like most organisations,  over the years we’ve built individual silos of data and technology across the organisation. Now we’re doing something different – using our digital transformation to deliver a secure-by-design platform to support a comprehensive data transformation.

What I mean by a data transformation is that to underpin the modernisation of our statistical work at ONS – and deliver the data capability we need for the future – we have reviewed and entirely refreshed our data governance and management framework.  That balances the need to extract value from data against the appropriate safeguards.  ONS has a legal obligation to protect personal data under the Data Protection Legislation. Furthermore, the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 makes it a criminal offence to improperly disclose information held by ONS that identifies a person or business.

Recent revelations about the likes of Facebook sharing all our personal data with more than 150 companies including Amazon, Spotify and Netflix, also Facebook and Google storing personal data without people’s knowledge, have raised serious concerns about individuals’ data privacy. Across the globe people expressed their frustration and anger that they hadn’t been made aware openly and transparently that their personal information was being used and stored in this way. We want to reassure all our data providers and users that we’re protecting their data and using it ethically – in the public interest.

In all ONS work, including the provision of data for third-party research projects via a safe setting, if we have a concern about the ethics of the analysis which will be carried out we consult the National Statistician’s Data Ethics Advisory Committee to consider the ethical issues associated with using the data in this way.

We’re also keen to be open and transparent about how we handle and secure data. So, we’ve published our revised framework for data handling and data security. It’s a principles-based approach which follows the Data Journey – by which I mean the journey actual data takes though ONS systems from the time it is ingested to the point where a derivative of this data (post analysis and confidentiality checking) is shared or published. We’re also publishing a refreshed list of the data we hold and what we use this data for. You can expect this list to grow over time.

I should explain here that our data is not held in one big linked database; we’re architecting our Data Access Platform so that data can be linked in different ways for different purposes. This is designed to preserve data confidentiality, so only the necessary subset of data is accessible by authorised people, for a certain purpose. To avoid compromising their effectiveness, we do not make public the specific details of the security measures we have in place, but our recently tightened security regime, which is independently assured by trusted external bodies, includes:

  • physical measures to restrict who can access places where data is stored;
  • protective measures for all data-related IT services;
  • measures to restrict who can access systems and data held by ONS;
  • controls to guard against staff or contractors misusing their legitimate access to data; including vetting to an appropriate level for the sensitivity of data to which they might have access.

One of the things I love about working in the public sector is that our work can be shared openly.

We live in a rapidly changing and developing digital world and we will continue to monitor and assess the data standards and security measures in place to ensure they remain strong and effective. So, as well as sharing this work openly to reassure all our data suppliers that we’re taking good care of their data, we’re also seeking feedback on our revised data policies.

The same data can provide different insights when viewed through different lenses or in different combinations. The more data is shared – with the appropriate safeguards of course – the more it has to give.

If you work with data, you’ll know that collaborating with others in this space is key and that we need to be able to share data more easily when it makes sense to do so. So, the second reason for sharing this work openly is that, if you’re in the technical space, we’d value your feedback on our approach and if you’re in the data space and would like to adopt the same approach, we’d love to support you with that – so that we can all share data more easily in the future.

ONS’s revised policies on the use, management and security of data can be found here.






Heather Savory is Deputy National Statistician for Data Capability