To speak to people involved in linking Government datasets is to enter a world that at times seems so ludicrous as to be Kafkaesque. Stories abound of Departments putting up arcane barriers to sharing their data with other parts of Government; of a request from one public sector body being treated as a Freedom of Information request by another; and of researchers who have to wait so long to get access to data that their research funding runs out before they can even start work.

Our report, Joining Up Data for Better Statistics, published today, was informed by these experiences and more.

The tragedy is that it doesn’t have to be this way. We encountered excellent cases where data are shared to provide new and powerful insights – for example, on where to put defibrillators to save most lives; how to target energy efficiency programmes to reduce fuel poverty; which university courses lead to higher earnings after graduation. These sorts of insight are only possible through joining up data from different sources. The examples show the value that comes from linking up data sets.

This points to a gap between what’s possible in terms of valuable insights, especially now the Digital Economy Act creates new legal gateways for sharing and linking data, and the patchy results on the ground.

It leads us to conclude that value is being squandered because data linkage is too hard and too rare.

We want to turn this on its head, and make data linkage much less frustrating. We point to six outcomes that we see as essential to support high quality linkage and analysis, with robust safeguards to maintain privacy, carried out by trustworthy organisations including the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and government Departments. The six outcomes are that:

  • Government demonstrates its trustworthiness to share and link data through robust data safeguarding and clear public communication
  • Data sharing and linkage help to answer society’s important questions
  • Data sharing decisions are ethical, timely, proportionate and transparent
  • Project proposal assessments are robust, efficient and transparent
  • Data are documented adequately, quality assessed and continuously improved
  • Analysts have the skills and resources needed to carry out high-quality data linkage and analysis

The report seeks to make things better. The six outcomes are the underpinnings of this. The report supports them with recommendations designed to help foster this new, better environment for trustworthy data linkage. The good news is that there is a strong coalition of organisations and leaders wanting to take this forward both inside and outside Government. This includes the National Statistician and his team at ONS, strong data linkage networks in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and new bodies like the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, UK Research and Innovation and the Ada Lovelace Institute. Alongside this blog we’re publishing a blog from Jeni Tennison, CEO of the Open Data Institute, which shows the strong support for this agenda outside Government.

We want statistical experts in Government, and those who lead their organisations, to achieve the six outcomes. When they do so, they will ensure that opportunities are no longer squandered. And the brilliant and valuable examples we highlight will no longer be the exception: analysts will be empowered to see data linkage as a core part of their toolkit for delivering insights.