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Report says new governance needed for data use



Royal Society and British Academy call for new independent body and outline high level principles

The UK needs a new governance structure to preserve public confidence and support the delivery of potential benefits of data use such as improved public services, according to a new report by the Royal Society and the British Academy.  

It says that the current framework for governing the management and use of data cannot keep pace with technological advances, and that there is a need for a new independent body to manage a framework.

In preparing Data Management and Use: Governance in the 21st Century, the two national academies brought together experts from sciences, humanities and social sciences to review of the current landscape of the issue.

They found that new ways of using data make it difficult to define when it is sensitive and that, while current governance goes some way in dealing with these challenges, there are clear gaps and too many silos. This makes it difficult to manage the tensions between individual and collective benefits and risks.

The report recommends the creation of an independent body that would anticipate, monitor and evaluate the management and usage of data, build practices and set standards and provide clarity and propose solutions where tensions arise.

It would steward, rather than replace, existing public and private actors such as the Information Commissioner’s Office and those in the health sector; and be led by experts from across disciplines including representatives of the public interest.

Need for principles

The report also advocates the adoption of a set of high level principles to guide future data governance. These include an over-arching principle that systems that govern data need to promote human flourishing, focusing on ensuring that data is used to serve individuals and communities.

The others are:

  • Protect individual and collective rights and interests.
  • Ensure trade-offs affected by data management and data use are made transparently, accountably and inclusively.
  • Seek out good practices and learn from success and from failure.
  • Enhance existing democratic governance.

It also emphasises that any form of governance needs to be specific to context. For example, it needs to recognise that the benefits and risks of using data in online shopping are different to when it used in healthcare.

In response, it argues that a clearly defined framework setting out acceptable uses of data would give stakeholders the confidence to explore new technologies, and enable society to reap the benefits. 

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser FRS (pictured), chair of the Royal Society Science Policy Advisory Group and co-chair of the report committee, said: “We have reached a stage where most aspects of our day-to-day lives generate data that is collected, presenting opportunities for various actors to use this information. Many of the ways in which the data is used lead to positive impacts for us and wider society.

“However, the rapid rate of change in this area requires a new approach to governance that can keep pace, ensuring that the risks and benefits of new applications can be debated in a transparent and inclusive way.”

She added: “History shows us that societies need to act early to create well founded responses to rapid technological change. A principle based approach to data governance can provide direction and stewardship during a potentially disruptive period of transition.”

AI relevance

Antony Walker, deputy chief executive officer of IT industry association techUK, highlighted the relevance of the report to the development of artificial intelligence (AI).

“We are already seeing intelligent machines outperform humans on a range of complex tasks, from playing Go to piloting aircraft and real time language translation,” he said. “As we consider the implications of a world where humans live and work alongside intelligent machines we have to ensure that we put the interests of humans first and develop effective mechanisms to ensure we have full control over such machines.

“A data stewardship body, bringing together leading experts from academia, business and other fields, will be able to do just that focusing, in particular, on promoting human flourishing to ensure that we anticipate and head off any risks that will arise from the development of AI and harness the huge opportunities these advances will unlock.” 

Image from Royal Society

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