News

Using data for the public good

March 30, 2016 • By Emily Mackay


There’s been a bit of a kerfuffle in the UK over the government’s proposed changes to disability payments. It’s led to an MP resigning in protest, and now it’s officially big news. That’s not really the point of this blog. It did, however, precipitate a train of thought regarding the use of data for the public good.

There’s been a bit of a kerfuffle in the UK over the government’s proposed changes to disability payments. It’s led to an MP resigning in protest, and now it’s officially big news. That’s not really the point of this blog. It did, however, precipitate a train of thought regarding the use of data for the public good.

Firstly, it seems a basic problem of the UK's current budgeting system is that a set of money-related rules are created or modified based on segmenting the population into broad categories. Surely this is a flawed approach in the current data-rich age.

From being so deep inside the crowd finance world, I can see that the stories behind every request for funding differ. The spectrum of humanity that is brought together in funding marketplaces (both funders and fundraisers) simply demonstrates that we don’t really divide neatly into convenient segments. No wonder the current approach to national finances results in some feeling unfairly treated.

But this is happening in an age where data about how people are living is at unprecedented levels. Literally more retrievable data than we have ever had before in the history of the world. Eye-watering amounts of (I suspect very largely) untapped data that could be used (with permission) to personalise tax and benefits, and reward economically positive behaviours.

For example, my digital payment systems, apps and loyalty cards know what I buy. This is a vast stack of information on what I eat and need, how I move around the world, how much I sell or pass on unwanted goods, and therefore what kind of landfill I am likely to leave behind me. It’s a pretty good record of what kind of person I am and what resources I use.

My very footsteps are tracked by my mobile and wearable devices, adding to the cloud of valuable data on how active and healthy I am. Add some statistics on probabilities of accidents and we have a good idea of what kind of medical services I am likely to need.

When thinking of economically positive behaviours, my company's records show how many new jobs I have helped create. If data from my crowd finance activity was also accessible, there would be other records of how I have contributed to society. For example, the backing I gave to a specific charity, UK startup, a local arts project, or in supporting the installation of renewable energy infrastructure. Those same records could show whether I am lending money and whether that’s benefiting a UK business, a student or an individual. All hitherto difficult to pinpoint (aside from the irritation that is GiftAid forms).

And if information on how I live isn’t enough, applications that distil the style of communication to which I respond best (thanks Crystal), can even tell government how to best communicate with me. (Tip: it’s not lengthy flyers or belated letters; keep it short).

I’m only scratching the surface here, but you get the drift. Also worth pointing out that the absence of data may be a useful indicator of behaviour as much as the presence of data. Clearly this is rough thinking, and yes, privacy issues come into play. For the record, I wouldn’t mind my data being used (securely), especially if it tailors my public contribution appropriately, and helps nudge me into better behaviours. I’d opt in to an opt in.

There would then need to be some very nifty algorithms to work out what this all meant individually and aggregated into into a big picture view of how to deploy or receive public funds to the overall benefit of the population. Then no doubt we’ll get into debates about the merits of the new ’budget algorithm’, but at least it wouldn’t be one size not really fitting all.

Emily Mackay