How secure data-sharing can help ‘Daniel Blakes’

Chris Coates is web editor for the ESRC-funded Administrative Data Service. He coordinates the Network newsletter, and helps to ensure that ADRN’s communications are clear and transparent.

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Winning Outstanding British film at the 2017 BAFTAs – not to mention the prizes it’s already taken, including the Palme d’Or at Cannes – I, Daniel Blake, the tale of a man’s dealings with the benefits system, is having another moment in the limelight.

People’s feelings about the film tend to vary according to their political beliefs. In the Guardian last year, for example, food writer and campaigner Jack Monroe said it felt “like a documentary on my life”, while Mark Littlewood, director general of the free-market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, said it could be seen as a “libertarian rant against the welfare state”.

But if our views on a large and rather vital arm of government are shaped by our politics, how can we get a balanced view? How do we know what’s working well and what isn’t? We need hard evidence – and that’s where my organisation, the Administrative Data Research Network (ADRN), comes in. We make it possible to carry out independent research using the information government and other agencies collect for registration, transactions and record keeping, usually when delivering a service. Research using these data collections can draw attention to the parts of the system which work, the places where government policies have been successful, and the elements which need to be reformed.

We want to make it easier to use government data for this work. For example, we’re talking to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) now about a project which will examine Universal Credit (UC). UC was designed to simplify the benefits system by replacing several different benefits and tax credits – such as Jobseeker’s Allowance, Income Support and Housing Benefit – with one monthly payment. Introduced in 2013, it’s being introduced gradually across the UK, and Peter Spittal at University College London wants to link DWP data with employment records from HMRC to understand what its effects have been. He hopes to learn how simplifying the welfare system has affected people’s decisions on how much to work – and to bring behavioural economics into his analysis, to help us understand how people behave when we face complexity in general. That could help all of us in our dealings with the energy market, for example, or financial services.

The research is independent and impartial, and we also build relationships with the departments and agencies that hold the data so that researchers can feed their findings back directly, allowing departments to fine-tune existing policies (and design new ones) using credible and impartial evidence. We also publish our research for the public.

Work like this can help to tackle the most complex social and economic challenges we face, and ultimately reach the people across the UK who need help the most. Other European countries, like the Netherlands and Denmark, use their own administrative data widely – what we’re trying to do is catch up. If researchers here can access equivalent data, UK government departments would benefit enormously – especially if different data collections are linked together, giving us a deeper, richer picture of society than any one data set can on its own.

“Vital though this research might be, privacy is crucial, too. The Network was set up not only to give researchers access to data, but to make sure they use the information safely and securely. It wasn’t designed for research, so we train people to use it, and put in place some very strict procedures to keep it safe and protect people’s identities.”- Melanie Wright, director of the Administrative Data Service, ADRN

It’s worth it, because this research can have a positive impact not just on benefits policy, but on policies to tackle deprivation, childhood obesity, social mobility, mental health and wellbeing, domestic violence and child sexual exploitation, too. These are just a few examples where we have projects approved and waiting for data, or already underway.

In the face of apparently intractable social problems, some of us wonder if there’s anything anyone can do to fix things. Well, now there is. Instead of relying on the ideology of either right or left to understand government policy, data science can give us impartial evidence which can help to shape and amend policies. Or, to put it more pithily: this work can change lives.

One of Ken Loach’s early films, Cathy Come Home, revolutionised the public image of homelessness, significantly increased support for the charity Shelter and led directly to the establishment of Crisis, which supports the single homeless. If the debate around I, Daniel Blake encourages government departments to work together more effectively, sharing information to improve services, and sharing data with researchers who can help to find innovative solutions, perhaps it, too, can have a legacy as lasting as its predecessor’s.

You can follow @ADRN_UK on Twitter. This blog first appeared on the ADRN website.

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