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Thinktank proposes creation of ‘synthetic datasets’ for public sector


Mark Say Managing Editor

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Public authorities should make ‘synthetic datasets’ available to each other to support the move to increase data sharing across public services, according to a new report by thinktank Reform.

It is one of a number of recommendations aimed at overcoming the lack of a clear data infrastructure for the public sector.

Titled Sharing the benefits, the report looks at the potential for data sharing to improve public services and identifies barriers that are currently undermining the effort. It says there are a number of technical challenges to be overcome, and organisations need to face up to threats around the security of personal information to build public trust.

Among the sticking points it identifies are the need to create the right infrastructure, with individual pieces of data presented in standard formats so they can be linked and provide for APIs. Legacy systems often make this difficult – the report points to the Metropolitan Police using 750 different systems – as does the absence of interoperability requirements in some procurements.

It also points to a complex legal framework for sharing information, saying it creates “a nebulous system” to navigate, and a weakness of public trust in how authorities use personal data. This leads to a need for auditability to make it possible to track data.

Better understanding

The recommendation is that authorities should offer synthetic datasets – consisting of dummy data that is structurally similar to that they hold – to help others understand how it is structured and what to ask for. This would help to ensure that the correct data is made available.

The report urges Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport to take supportive steps, notably in creating a data quality assurance toolkit and a seal of approval to show the quality of data is satisfactory.

Other recommendations include: technology vendors should ensure products are compatible with relevant APIs; any system procured should adopt open standards; departments should develop audit trails on how data is used; and the Data Advisory Board should focus its attention on tackling the challenges to multi-agency data sharing.

The report’s conclusion acknowledges it will take time to deal with these issues and that there is a need for collaboration between the centre and local areas and across sectors; but it says this can ultimately help to produce better public services.

Sarah Timmis, researcher at Reform, said: “Sharing personal data between government organisations is contentious but fundamental to creating modern, connected public services. Government will need public confidence over the security of data, and privacy, if it is to ‘get data right’."

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