OPINION14 March 2016

The responsibility of data

Data analytics Opinion Public Sector UK

Government and private business must recognise that citizens feel emotionally attached to their data and, in exchange for sharing their personal information, people should receive better services says Wilma Smythe. 


If you gave permission to a friend to borrow your car, you must already trust her but might be worried about what happened to it. If this friend instead borrows your car, and then brings something back that is more valuable than the actual car, then you would not only trust her, but also admire her. Perhaps she has organised a surprise party for you, with your friends and family and needed your car to carry all the food and drinks that she purchased.

I see the relationship between big-data organisations and citizens very similar. It can be broken forever due to the potential of misusing a valuable possession, or long-lasting, thanks to the unexpected delivery of value, authenticity and trust.

Many organisations that use big data manage the relationship between data and privacy simply on legal grounds. Data is however something that can be emotionally attached to one’s identity. It represents what makes us unique.

Most companies, however, use consent solely as an opportunity for more targeted marketing, without considering that they could deliver value in other aspects of consumers’ lives.

Facebook’s recent initiative of donating 99% of its profits to social causes over time (an estimated $45billion), suggests that the organisation is moving from a place of social networking to a place of social responsibility. As far as I am concerned, ‘big data’ has to be more than the backbone to personalised marketing, and while most organisations will never have access to the data that a few large organisations have, they should still be focusing on giving something back, spanning the realms of generosity, service, trust and social responsibility.  

In government, the use of ‘big data’ is different to that in the private sector. This difference is not only because of the need to be socially responsible, but also due to the type of relationship. Government has a moral obligation to act as data custodian. This privileged status is evident in our customer insight, where, throughout our focus groups, we regularly see that citizens expect government to use sophisticated tools and joined-up databases to connect vital information across departments to deliver public services. This is accepted as long as data is used within limits and for the right reasons (e.g. security checks and crime prevention).

But the growth of big data applications in the private sector, coupled with advancements in technology, is also influencing the role of big data in government. For example, Estonia uses web-enabled services such as voting and kiosk-based purchasing of travel tickets. China and Saudi Arabia are trailing passport collections via eCabinets, which are kiosk-like devices that hold passports securely for citizens to collect their approved passport following an identity check.

Data is also getting used to move away from one-size-fits-all approaches to more tailored services. At HM Passport Office, we have recently launched a passport expiry reminder service following a number of controlled pilots underpinned by customer intelligence. Reminders will help key customer groups renew their passports on time and avoid the stress of last minute travel arrangements.

To develop this service, we used our data assets and commissioned research to understand the customer segments that would most benefit from reminders. We also gathered feedback from customers throughout the pilots, demonstrating how some groups benefited more than others, and identified the ideal times to send reminders based on customer response rates.

These examples show that governments around the world are increasingly using their data assets to not only deliver security applications, but also improve convenience and customer service.

My challenge would be that all organisations, private or public, should use big data beyond their immediate benefit. If customers offer something of value such as their personal information, then all organisations should respond to this gesture by delivering better services that address customer needs and offer value to citizens’ lives.

Wilma Smythe is head of customer intelligence, HM Passport Office