Data management and use: governance in the 21st century

by Genevra Richardson

28 Jun 2017

We are surrounded by data, and with new technologies we can collect and share more of it than ever before. This creates many opportunities for new uses of data, for example in healthcare and education, and new applications, such as self-driving cars, which may involve the use of data by intelligent machines. These new applications can make a great contribution to human flourishing but also create new dilemmas in how to balance risks and benefits for individuals and communities.

The British Academy and the Royal Society have brought together leading academics, industry leaders, civil society and data and technology specialists to better understand the needs of a 21st century data governance system and have published a joint report Data Management and Use: Governance in the 21st century

Our project has found that governance practices for data management and data use have evolved as new technologies and applications have emerged in different sectors. This has produced a patchwork of governance approaches, with inadequate consideration of the consequences of connecting data across sectors. Questions about what we do when things go wrong, such as if a self-driving car crashes, need to be resolved. 

To ensure that the extraordinary opportunities for a data enabled society are realised it is essential to foresee and tackle these new challenges. The most important factor is building well-founded trust: this will give users and developers of new services the confidence they need.  History has provided rich illustrations of how the widespread adoption of new technologies can increase public anxiety, or result in major public controversy, both of which risk hampering potential benefits.

We think two responses are required. Firstly, a set of high-level principles is needed to visibly shape all forms of data governance and ensure trustworthiness and trust in the management and use of data as a whole. The promotion of human flourishing is the overarching principle that should guide the development of systems of data governance. The four principles that follow provide practical support for this overarching principle: all systems of data governance across the varied ways data is managed and used should,

  • protect individual and collective rights and interests

  • ensure that trade-offs affected by data management and data use are made transparently, accountably and inclusively

  • seek out good practices and learn from success and failure

  • enhance existing democratic governance.

We also need a new, independent body to steward the overall framework and embed these Principles for Data Governance in a way which will ensure data is well used. That body must be transparent, inclusive, anticipate new developments and monitor existing arrangements, making recommendations to others or acting as needed. It must be able to promote debate, draw together different strands of discussion and work with scientists, businesses, regulators, policymakers and the public.

This stewardship body would be expected to conduct expert investigation into novel questions and issues, and to enable new ways to anticipate the future consequences of today’s decisions.

We have been delighted by the levels and breadth of engagement throughout our review and believe that there is a growing consensus about the need to act urgently in this area. If we get this right, there is a significant opportunity for the UK to lead on this issue and be at the forefront of innovation.

Update 25 January 2018:

In response to Prime Minister Theresa May's address at the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos in which she outlined plans for a national Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation in the UK, Professor Genevra Richardson said: 

"As data collection activities continue to increase and as analytical techniques used to process data become more sophisticated, individuals and communities are affected in new and unexpected ways. In a period of rapid change, data management and use needs to be informed by ethical principles which will require insights from the humanities and social sciences, alongside science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Disciplines like law, ethics and psychology will be invaluable in tackling these new challenges.

“We welcome the Prime Minister’s plans for the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, following our joint recommendations last year. We look forward to working with the government to support and advise on the formation of the CDEI and the appropriate governance of data and artificial intelligence.”

Professor Genevra Richardson CBE FBA is Co-Chair joint BA and RS Data Governance working group.

The views expressed by our authors on the British Academy blog are not necessarily endorsed by Academy, but are commended as contributing to public debate.

Sign up to our email newsletters