Jeni Tennison, CEO of the Open Data Institute, responds to our Joining Up Data for Better Statistics report.

Data is moving from being scarce and difficult to process to being abundant and easy to use. But harnessing its value for economic and social benefit – in ways that support innovation and deliver social justice – is not straightforward.

At the Open Data Institute (ODI), we would like to see a future where people, organisations and communities use data to make better decisions, more quickly. This would help our economies and societies to thrive. Using data and statistics well underpins research; enables us to innovate; informs the creation of more effective products, services and policies; and fuels discovery, economic growth and productivity.

In the future we would like to see, people can trust organisations to manage data ethically and benefits arising from data are distributed fairly. Data is used to meet the needs of individuals, communities and societies.

The Joining Up Data for Better Statistics review from the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) focuses on an essential part of this open, trustworthy data ecosystem: how to safely link together and share data from across different data stewards for analysis, research and generating statistics.

Data as roads

At the ODI, we often use the analogy of data being like roads. Where we use roads to navigate to a location, we use data to navigate to a decision.

The road analogy highlights the importance of joining up data. A single road only takes us to places between two locations; their real value comes from being part of a network. Data works in the same way: it is not just having more data that unlocks its value, but linking it together. Data is not individual datasets, it is a network: a data infrastructure.

We can apply the ‘data as roads’ analogy to the Code of Practice for Statistics’ three pillars:

  • Roads are valuable when they go to places people want to go to; similarly, data and statistics add value when they help answer society’s questions.
  • Well-paved roads help us travel more quickly, but even rough tracks can be useful if you have the right vehicle – you need to know what to expect when you’re planning a journey; similarly, high-quality data is best, but lower quality data can be useful if you are aware of its limitations when drawing conclusions.
  • To avoid danger, we rely on engineers to use good practices to build and maintain roads, bridges and tunnels and on road users obeying the rules of the road; similarly, we rely on data custodians and data users to collect, maintain, use and share data in trustworthy ways.

Open and trustworthy

Like our road infrastructure, for our data infrastructure to generate value it has to be both as open as possible and trustworthy.

Data is more useful when more people can access and use it. It is most useful when it can be joined together. Data that is inaccessible – or where access takes so long it is rendered irrelevant – is of limited utility.

At the same time, greater access and linkage – particularly with personal data – can increase the potential for harmful impacts. The result of unethical, inequitable and untransparent use of data goes beyond direct impacts on affected individuals: it can undermine trust more widely, causing people to withdraw consent.

This ultimately affects the quality and representativeness of the data we have, the data we need to understand our populations, to meet their needs, and to innovate.

As the OSR’s review highlights, there is still much to do to increase both data’s openness and its trustworthiness. We need better technical guidance and approaches, through data trusts perhaps, but we also need to upskill data stewards so they can understand and weigh risks and benefits, quickly and well.

We are still learning how to share and join up data in open and trustworthy ways. Being open and transparent about the decisions we make as we use and share data can build trust and speed up this learning, so we can all benefit from data.