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Sharing data to support vulnerable people


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Identifying and supporting vulnerable people is a sensitive issue but there are steps that can be taken to facilitate safe and effective data sharing, writes Richard Duffield, head of customer insights at GeoPlace.

Successful sharing of data across NHS and local government to support vulnerable people in the Covid-19 crisis changed the data sharing mindset in many organisations, escaping longstanding anxieties, often based on misconceptions, around breaking data protection law.

This experience has left a lasting legacy, not just in demonstrating the need but in building confidence in the legal use of relevant data sources identify a need for support and provide a rapid response.

A key learning from the crisis was the approach of sharing ‘flags’ linked to properties, rather than individuals - highlighting the value of minimising the amount of data shared while maximising the value of insight gained. This process highlighted the importance of using common data standards such as the unique property reference number (UPRN) as a key to linking and exploring different datasets.

GeoPlace has been working with UKAuthority to explore how we can distil the key learnings from this experience and identify the steps to facilitating effective, and confident, sharing of data ongoing to help identify, support and protect vulnerable people. This involved a series of UKA Live discussions with public sector experts - including thought leaders from the Information Commissioner, Central Digital and Data Office and NHS England, and Barnsley Council, Humberside Fire and Rescue Service and iStand/SAVVI – a review of relevant initiatives, technical issues and information governance (IG) frameworks.

Key steps to confident sharing

The final report from this research documents the journey, but focuses on a summary of these key steps that should be taken to ensure the proportionate and effective sharing of data to support vulnerable people:

  • Identify vulnerability risk attributes and the datasets where they reside.
  • Identify partners for data sharing.
  • Consider the information governance aspects.
  • Use the SAVVI catalogue on data sharing propositions.
  • Use UPRNs as the key to linking datasets. This minimises the use of personal data while maximising the benefits of sharing.

Underpinning role of UPRNs

UPRNs, allocated by local authorities and managed nationally by GeoPlace, provide a unique numerical identifier for each addressable location in the UK. Ensuring that these are embedded within datasets used both within councils and other public sector organisations, makes it possible to quickly link information from different sources while ensuring the data is consistent and reducing the potential for error. Importantly it also enables identification of a household rather than an individual – which helps to maintain confidentiality when sharing information.

Their value is widely recognised by local authorities and they are used across the country, but they are still not used by all other public sector bodies - and some of those that do use them, do not apply them systematically. There is a need to promote their wider use so they become a core feature of data management throughout public services.

There is also potential in the development of SAVVI (Standard Approach to Vulnerability via Interoperability) standards, a work in progress as part of the iStandUK programme. With support from the Department for Levelling up, Housing and Communities’ Local Digital Fund, the team is building a catalogue of attributes that could indicate risk of vulnerability. The UPRN is an underpinning standard in this work.

Complexity and uncertainty

Other issues of course have to be addressed. A significant barrier to data sharing remains in a pervasive uncertainty over the complexities of data protection laws and the correct approach to information governance. Legislation can be dry, complex and complicated - sometimes seemingly contradictory and open to interpretation via case law.

Under the Digital Economy Act, for example, there are legal gateways for sharing some personal data to improve public service delivery, but it must be within the confines of the Data Protection Act. If health information is to be incorporated then the Common Law Duty of Confidentiality is paramount.

There are also issues around culture and skills which must be addressed with a shift in focus to the benefits of sharing data when appropriate - and risk of not doing so - and an investment in skills and interoperable infrastructure.

While no one can fully predict the needs of any future crisis, the landscape will inevitably change over time, and there will be requirements to develop new initiatives in data sharing. These could become more complex, taking in new factors and harnessing the potential of machine learning and artificial intelligence.  

But the underlying principle of underpinning datasets with key standards such as the UPRN will remain part of the foundation for the long term.

Meanwhile, effective use of the insights data can provide will be essential to the public sector as, with rising demands on its services and the squeeze on its finances, it needs to place a greater emphasis on preventative rather than reactionary measures. Much of its resource goes into supporting people who are vulnerable, and the earlier it can take action the lower the overall burden will be, both to the public sector and to peoples’ lives.

You can learn more about the key steps to using data more confidently by downloading the briefing paper below.

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