Why are public views in the use of data important?

Considering the views of the public regarding how we use their data for research and statistics is important for maintaining public trust and acceptability in the work that we do and the data that we collect and use. Effectively understanding and anticipating public attitudes also supports the design of more effective and inclusive data gathering approaches.

Public views may relate to the types of data that we collect, how that data is collected, and the different ways in which that data may be analysed, used and shared. This has also been considered in relation to gaining a social licence for data stewardship.

When data is used for research and statistical purposes, this is usually undertaken to achieve some form of public good and brings many benefits to society. As a result, broad public acceptability of the use of data for this purpose has been suggested by prior research (see the ‘find out more’ section of this guidance), subject to certain conditions being fulfilled, such as transparency in the conduct of projects, maintenance of privacy for data subjects, and public interest.

However, different data collection methods can present different challenges and it may be useful to explore these from the perspective of public views and acceptability. These challenges may include:

  • The existence of bias from incomplete or inaccurate data sets and how this can best be addressed.
  • The potential for disproportionate data gathering that might lead to the profiling of people and how this can be avoided.
  • Potential risks and related safeguards regarding who can access and use the data, as well as aspects related to data ownership.

Overall, the level of acceptability for any individual project is likely to depend on the wider context of the work, the methods and data that are used, and the subsections of the public that are being considered.

Public views and engagement as an ethical principle

The use of data for research and statistics is commonly undertaken in line with existing ethical principles, such as the UK Statistics Authority’s six ethical principles. These six principles encompass public good, legal compliance, public views and engagement, transparency, methods and quality, and confidentiality and data security.

Public views and engagement represent one of these ethical principles and are included within the UK Statistics Authority’s ethics self-assessment tool, which emphasises that the wider context in which research is undertaken, and the potential ethical and societal impacts of the work, should always be considered.

This does not necessarily mean that the publics views should be sought for every project that is undertaken, since this would not be practical, but existing knowledge and outputs can often be harnessed to help gauge the likely public acceptability of your work.

Where there is a need to better understand public views in relation to a project and direct public engagement is required, there are a range of methods and associated resources available to support this work. These are summarised in the ‘undertaking public engagement’ section of this guidance.

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