'Information is power,' hears Socitm Scotland conference

Written by Alan Robertson on 26 November 2015 in Feature

Unleashing the potential of data, though desirable, still has a way to go

“Information is power and we need to share as far as we can the information we have.” So said Jane Morgan, deputy director of the Scottish Government’s Digital Directorate, neatly capturing the mood as senior public sector figures met for Socitm Scotland’s annual conference this week.

However, turning that vision into reality comes with its fair share of challenges, none more so, perhaps, than in the integration of health and social care. “There is no big pot of money,” said Murdoch Carberry, chair of the Information Sharing Board, which brings together various key players. “These health and social care partnerships have got to succeed but nobody is backing that up with lots of new investment for IT tools. So in that sense, we will have to create opportunities for collaboration and sharing where we can.”

Fife is seeking to do just that, delegates heard. “There was a real sense of exasperation from the practitioners that the technology was the problem,” said Charlie Anderson, Fife Council chief information officer. In that context, the local authority and health board have created a portal designed to draw their health and social care data together, allowing, for instance, child protection alerts to be flagged to those working in separate settings.

A pilot area has been selected which will involve 50 users over a two-month period. “Our biggest challenge is how do we fund this and sustain this moving forward,” acknowledged William Edwards, head of eHealth/ICT at NHS Fife, citing workloads as well as resource constraints.

Analysis of organisational spend on research and development as a percentage of GDP shows Scotland is lagging behind its continental neighbours. The Data Lab, one of eight innovation centres funded by the Scottish Funding Council, brings together industry, academics and the public sector to extract knowledge as well as investment from data. So far, nine projects have been funded and a further 19 potential projects with public sector partners are in the pipeline.

Asked where Scotland sits compared to Europe and the US, chief executive Gillian Docherty said: “We’re not behind. I think we often hide our light under the bushel, so to say, but we’re doing some really great things and part of our mission is to put us on the map more.”

Of course, any discussion about data brings with it anxieties about privacy, especially in light of recent high-profile breaches. “Edward Snowden, TalkTalk, Ashley Madison – what do these things have in common?” asked Tim Ellis, National Records of Scotland chief executive. “All of them will have an inherent impact on public perceptions about what organisations, private or public, do with their data and the extent to which they are prepared to trust us with what they give us.”

Ellis co-chairs the Scottish Informatics and Linkage Collaboration (SILC), which brings together government, the NHS and universities to generate insights from data linkages – in effect, joining datasets where there is no direct impact on an individual of that information being linked. Data is anonymised, researchers access data in a secure environment, and linked datasets are deleted after each project. “If we don’t use the data to make a difference, then there is a question about what we are doing with it,” said Ellis.

A simpler governance structure within Scotland that encourages use of data for the public good would be a step in the right direction, according to Ellis. “There is a bit of an issue about the plethora of legislation in this context and how we are able to apply it,” he told delegates.

“For me, there is something about trying to create a governance framework that is understandable to citizens, usable by data managers and producers, which will promote the use of data quite straightforwardly. That’s a big ask.”  

Big data, as it is known, is not the only area where transparency is considered crucial. “If you’re not transparent, Joe Public immediately thinks you’ve got something to hide,” when it comes to personal data, warned Maureen Falconer, senior policy officer with the Information Commissioner’s Office in Scotland. That said, seeking consent is not always necessary. The Data Protection Act sets out a number of conditions for processing personal data other than seeking consent.

“One of the messages that the ICO in Scotland has been giving for the past three years at least, in relation to the Children and Young People Act and the named person agenda, is don’t ask for consent if you’re going to do it anyway,” added Falconer.

“What we have to have within consent is meaningful choice – that is absolutely fundamental. Don’t ask me for my consent if I really don’t have a choice in the matter. Just go ahead and do it, because you’re going to have to rely on one of these other conditions for processing in any event, so have the courage of your convictions and do it anyway.”




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