Data sharing — is the reward worth the risk?

Cognizant Australia

By Patricio De Matteis, Digital Leader Cognizant
Monday, 08 November, 2021


Data sharing — is the reward worth the risk?

With Robodebt still firmly on people’s minds, many Australians are apprehensive about the recently signed National Data Sharing agreement.

The new regulation signed by federal, state and territory leaders is aimed at making more data available across all jurisdictions for policy development and service delivery, and to lay the foundations for linked-up government services.

However, while the policy outlines clear roles and responsibilities for state and federal government bodies when it comes to data sharing, unfortunately the policy is, so far, only focused on data gathering for broad, vaguely defined purposes.

The government is certainly taking steps in the right direction to make Australia everyday more digital. It’s a vast undertaking, but there are key learnings that can be easily extrapolated from the business world, where best practices in handling consumer data are the bread and butter of the privacy-consciousness age.

Here, we outline the key learnings from data experts in business that could contribute when implementing Australia’s new digital framework.

Value vs risk

Much like hoarding hand sanitiser, collecting data for the sake of it is a fruitless enterprise that increases consumer frustration without providing any benefit whatsoever.

While sharing data is an important first step, a simple collection function is not sufficient to create value. Just because data is there to be collected doesn’t make it valuable or ethical to collect.

Before forging ahead, the government needs to:

  1. Ensure participating governments are proven accredited to handle personal data. Government tends to lag behind private enterprise when it comes to data security and storage.
  2. Watch the legal risk. Why? Because governments will be sharing collected data without consent for a purpose for which it was not originally collected.
  3. Tighten security. Data sharing across multiple systems exposes personal data to potential breaches. Even big businesses, with the latest in data collection and storage systems, are still vulnerable to hacks and breaches daily. What security are governments going to put into place to ensure this doesn’t happen to its citizens’ private information?

Data collection without purpose offers little value and a significant risk to the people involved. A thoughtful analysis must take place to ensure citizens are benefiting from the data they have entrusted to the government and not being unfairly penalised for it, or made vulnerable, as some other recent data ventures have demonstrated.

Not all data is valid

Not all collected or available data is valuable or relevant. In fact, gathering too much data without a specific goal in mind can end up complicating issues even further.

Data is not a magic cure-all. There are five questions we need to answer before collecting any data:

  1. What’s the reason you want the data in the first place?
  2. Which outcomes are you trying to drive?
  3. What decisions are you going to make?
  4. How are you going to activate the data?
  5. How are you storing and safeguarding the data?

Knowing what we want to do with the data is critical for gathering, but another step that is often overlooked is ensuring the quality of the data we are working with; otherwise, we are at risk of perpetuating inherent biases and stereotypes, particularly across already disadvantaged community groups. We have seen this happen the world over, with law enforcement using historical data in algorithms, which then leads to racial profiling.

Effort must be made by governments to clean used data and remove irrelevant data before it is shared.

Good in theory — but what about in practice?

While the idea of data sharing across state and territory governments to improve services might be good in theory, more work must be done by government on the National Data Sharing Agreement before it is enacted.

As discussed, data collection must be purposeful in order to create value and reduce risk. Specifically, care must be taken to ensure it is used to develop or improve services and offerings, and not result in disadvantage either from a privacy standpoint or because of historical bias. Not all collected or available data is valuable or relevant.

Today, more than any time in history, the government working in partnership with data experts from the business sector is critical to help maximise the benefits for Australians, and reduce risks for all involved in this agreement.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/Connect world

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