The Institute for Government has warned the government to take the right lessons from the pandemic

The Institute for Government has published a report showing that the government is at risk of drawing the wrong lessons from data sharing during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Written by Gavin Freeguard and Paul Shepley, the report, Data sharing during the coronavirus: Lessons for government, based on six roundtables held by the IfG in the summer of 2022 with civil servants and data practitioners. The think tank writes each roundtable, provides video and audio. They covered topics such as legislation to support data sharing, data sharing to prevent fraud and the experiences of the NHS Covid-19 Data Store.

The report says that the data store has attracted controversy because of how open the project owners are about the involvement of some suppliers. “Openness about the private companies involved in the project led to many stories in the press,” said the authors of the report, embarrassed. Palantir has proven to be a controversial company in the context of this project because it is a favorite target of civil libertarian organizations, such as Privacy International, Big Brother Watch and the legal company Foxglove.

The report questioned the government’s self-congratulation about sharing data during the pandemic. It points to the findings of two parliamentary committees, the House of Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee, and the Science and Technology Select Committee, which are critical of the government’s response to the pandemic.

“A country with a world-class expertise in data analysis should not be facing the biggest health crisis in 100 years with almost no data analysis,” he said. in one. The IfG report also registered the way in which setting up NHS Test and Trace “as a new organization outside the health care system created technical challenges that hindered the sharing of positive cases of infection and their locations by local authorities”.

The report expressed reservations about the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill that will go through Parliament this year. Regarding the roundtable on that topic, the authors said: “The most important challenges to data sharing identified by our roundtable participants are not legislative, but cultural and organizational, meaning that further legislation may fail to solve (and potentially disrupt) problems that actually pose a barrier to effective data sharing.”

The report suggests that the government should reconsider some of the proposed changes to the bill. This, say the authors of the report, “will remove the requirement for many measures that have been highlighted as useful by the roundtable participants, such as data protection impact assessments. [DPIAs] and data protection officers. The bill should retain these aspects. “

The report said the bill was framed by the government as delivering some of the so-called “Brexit benefits” by creating a “pro-growth and innovation-friendly data protection regime”. This is because Brexit allows the UK to separate from the European version of the General Data Protection Regulation. However, the report’s authors continued that “an important lesson from the pandemic is that existing legislation is more appropriate for emergency and non-emergency situations, and allows the government to respond quickly when necessary data sharing”.

They went on to note that the new bill could “disrupt the existing legal environment, which is still dormant, and remove some critical protections and processes.

“Data protection officers and DPIAs have often been highlighted by participants in our roundtables as useful, and remain recommended by the ICO as a useful tool although not mandatory,” it said.

The report also recommends that the Central Digital and Data Office should develop a so-called data sharing “playbook” to help public sector workers build new services built around the use of data. The goal is to “minimize obstacles for civil servants to establish new data sharing agreements for the public good, while respecting the rights and views of the public and coordinating with the Information Commissioner’s Office. [ICO] guidance”. The report identifies a leading role to be played by the Center for Data Ethics and Innovation in the development of this “playbook”.

Although it is not mentioned in the report, the basis of the “playbook” concept is that the government plans to establish a so-called “data marketplace” as part of Roadmap for digital and data, 2022-2025. The policy paper describing this “roadmap” states that all government departments “will have access to a Data Marketplace (including a Data Catalogue, standards and management models) to compete with the most good practice in the public and private sectors”.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson confirmed to Computer Weekly that a blogpost from the Central Digital and Data Office is in the works which will put substance to the idea of ​​a “data marketplace”.

The authors of the IfG report concluded, in their report, that: “The pandemic shows what can be achieved and highlights how a clear objective and urgent need can overcome some of the traditionally cited barriers to data sharing But it also shows what barriers remain to sharing data in the public interest.

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