Producing accounts of data uses

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Mapping public sector data uses on Living With Data

On Living With Data, we produced accounts of specific data uses to discuss with research participants. We wanted to research people’s knowledge and feelings about specific data uses, rather than asking more general questions as most research at the time had done, in order to understand attitudes to actual data practices. We focused on public sector data uses because they shape everyday life experiences and yet had received less attention than high profile commercial data uses at the time of our research.

We focused on data uses in welfare, media and health. To produce accounts of data uses in welfare and media, we partnered with the government Department for Welfare and Pensions (DWP) and the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). For health, we produced an account of a data use based on information in the public domain, and another account based on research that one of us, Itzelle Medina-Perea, had undertaken into National Health Service (NHS) data flows. 

We used some of the techniques developed by Jo Bates and others (2016) to produce accounts of data uses, which they call ‘data journeys’. This involves using a mix of internal organisational and public documentation and interviews with key informants to create descriptions of data flows. In the data uses which were the focus of our research, data did not always flow, or go on a journey – indeed, some data uses aimed to limit the movement of personal data in order to give people more control over data about them. 

Six public sector data uses

We produced accounts and visualisations of six data uses. We asked survey respondents questions about data uses based on written accounts. We used the visualisations as elicitation tools in focus groups and interviews, accompanying them with verbal descriptions and discussions. Click on the name of the data use listed below to see the related visualisation.  

BBC and DWP data uses were selected by our contacts within these partner organisations. At the BBC, our focus was on two experiments with personal control over data: 

  • BBC Box, a prototype which pulls together data about what users watch or listen to and gives them control over who has access to this data; 
  • BBC Own It, a free app designed by the BBC to support, help and advise children when they use their phones to chat and explore the online world, without adult supervision.

DWP data uses both focused on ways of verifying identity online: 

  • Confirm Your Identity, an identity verification process for Universal Credit payments which makes it possible to confirm identity online; 
  • Dynamic Trust Hub, which explored a range of issues to enhance identity verification, including technology integration and possible security checks. 

In the health domain, we produced accounts of: 

  • The NHS Covid data store, a national data store to help organisations responsible for coordinating the Covid-19 response. We drew on information in the public domain, on government web pages and elsewhere to produce this account. 
  • Data uses in an NHS antibiotic prescribing research project. We drew on prior by Itzelle Medina-Perea to produce this account. 

We produced an animation of the BBC Own It visualisation as part of the Festival of Social Science at the University of Sheffield, with the aim of making it more accessible and easy to understand.

Organising data uses into themes

In our interviews and focus groups, we grouped data uses into four themes. Click on the name of the theme in the list below to see related visualisations. The themes, our descriptions of them and the data uses included in the theme were:

  • Data Matching: this is where organisations match data from different datasets or databases, or compare data from one dataset with data from another. The Data Matching theme included the NHS antibiotic prescribing project and Confirm Your Identity. 
  • Data Ownership and Control: who owns and controls data about you. The Data Ownership and Control theme included both BBC data uses, BBC Box and BBC Own It, and the NHS Covid-19 Data Store.
  • Data Sharing and Re-use: By this, we mean instances where data collected by one organisation is then shared with another organisation. The Data Sharing and Re-use theme included the two NHS data uses, the NHS antibiotic prescribing project and the NHS Covid-19 Data Store, and BBC Own It.     
  • Algorithmic Processing: By algorithmic processing, we are referring to analytic processes where machines, not humans, make decisions, predictions or recommendations, for example about our behaviour or the kinds of content we see. The Algorithmic Processing theme included the two BBC data uses, BBC Box and BBC Own It, and DWP Dynamic Trust Hub.