Leaving no one behind - how the UK is thinking about data inclusivity

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez September 28, 2021
The UK Statistics Authority last year put together an Inclusive Data Taskforce, which has now shared its recommendations for collecting complete and appropriate data for all groups.

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(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay )

COVID-19 has highlighted how representative and accurate data collection can help government bodies better provide services to those in need. During the pandemic data was used to identify which groups needed financial support, which hospitals had capacity, which areas were struggling with infections, which communities were not receiving adequate healthcare and which groups needed encouragement to get the vaccine. 

In response there is new ambition within the government to collect data that is reflective and inclusive of all across the UK, so that "everyone in society counts and is counted and no one is left behind". 

And whilst this is a report solely focused on government institutions, many of the key points can be applied to enterprises too - they should take note. 

In October last year a new Inclusive Data Taskforce was established to help the UK Statistics Authority understand how to make data collection more representative and inclusive - and this week has put forward its recommendations. The taskforce brought together a range of expertise, including senior academics and civil society leaders; on subjects such as social and economic inequalities, ethnicity and identity; qualitative and quantitative methodologies, and research ethics.

Whilst the UK's data infrastructure has a good amount of data on variables such as sex, disability, ethnic group and religion, the taskforce identified a number of ‘critical gaps' that need attention. These include: 

  • Non-household populations - for example, members of care homes or prisons, well as homeless people

  • Transgender, non-binary and gender-diverse people

  • Groups that are often deemed ‘harder to reach' - for instance, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller groups, as well as ex-pioneers, asylum seekers, victims of domestic abuse and undocumented migrants

  • The digitally excluded population 

The taskforce collected evidence over a nine month period to consider how it can: improve the inclusiveness of its approach to the collection, analysis and report of data; make the most effective use of existing data; understand where the critical gaps in data lie; and how it can build on its own and others' experiences in improving the UK's approach to equalities and inclusion going forward. 

This isn't easy. During the taskforce's research, it found that trust emerged across all of its consultation activities as a barrier to participation in data collection. If the government wants to get this right, to understand the population and provide better services - which again is a lesson for enterprise readers too for their customers - trust is key. 

The recommendations fall into three key areas, which are outlined below (although the full list of recommendations can be found here). 

Create an environment of trust 

Central to the point above, those collecting data need to be deemed trustworthy. People are happy to provide their personal information when they believe that (1) their data matters and will be used to improve people's lives and are convinced of the (2) reliability, (3) responsiveness, (4) openness and inclusiveness, (5) integrity and (6) fairness of the data producer.

To create an environment of trust, the taskforce suggests a ‘social contract' needs to be established between data collectors and providers. This means data collectors should include a clear explanation of why the data is being collected and how it will be used; ensure confidentiality and anonymity; provide timely, free and accessible feedback to respondents; engage with relevant groups and populations across the whole data process; and that public interest should prevail over organizational, political or personal interests. 

Take a whole system approach

Taking a whole system approach means implementing mechanisms for the Office for National Statistics to report how it is performing against the taskforce's recommendations. It also means engaging with academics, user groups and others outside government with experience of key equalities issues. The ONS should also review how other statistics offices undertake data collection and share knowledge on improving inclusivity. 

A commitment should be made to being more inclusive in what is measured and how, who is engaged with, widening access to data and evidence, and improving the accuracy of the insights produced to better reflect people's lives. 

Clarity on what inclusivity means in practice

Work should be carried out regularly to review who is under-represented in UK statistics or data collection services. Agencies must ensure data and evidence comprehensively and reliably reflect society, now and as it evolves. 

UK data and evidence should be equally accessible to all, while protecting the identity and confidentiality of those sharing data. Harmonised standards for relevant groups and populations should be reviewed at least every five years and updated and expanded where necessary. 

The taskforce also recommends broadening the range of methods that are routinely used and create new approaches to understanding experiences across the population of the UK. 

Chair of the Inclusive Data Taskforce, Dame Moira Gibb, commented on the report and said: 

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has provided the context for all of our work, has highlighted just how important good and timely data is for public policy and society. Inclusive data helps us understand how events impact differentially on individuals, groups and communities. In turn this must enable those responsible in government, local authorities and wider society, and all of us as individuals and communities, to address the disparities and inequalities which exist in the UK in 2021.

I am grateful to everyone who took part and contributed their time, views, experiences and ideas for solutions and ways forward. The taskforce has been struck by the willingness of people to engage with the consultation activities, to organise events themselves and to send their work to us. The contributions of so many different individuals and groups have been integral to our deliberations and recommendations. They have helped us better understand how data inclusivity might be achieved in practice.

I believe our recommendations will land on fertile ground, given the contributions we have received from so many quarters, which is reassuring as there is much to be done.

My take

This may seem like a fairly niche topic relevant to UK statistics agencies, but I think it's a topic that should be considered far and wide by most organizations. If you don't understand who you are trying to provide services to, you won't be providing any effective service at all. This is something we think about regularly at diginomica internally too. 

Trust is the key element here and that social contract is critically important. One false move and any future attempts at data collection to improve services are put at risk (you only have to look at the National Health Service in the UK to see evidence of that). Governance structures, effective communication and giving people control of their data are all key. But if you get it right, there is a huge opportunity to not only provide better services, but build an ongoing relationship with data providers that is long-lasting. 

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