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Will public perception over data sharing ever change?

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Earlier this month The Register reported on Ofgem’s plans to create a database service, which will see the energy data on millions of Brits shared with rival companies in a bid to create a more competitive market. The tech publication positioned the move as an infringement of consumer privacy. This negative perception of data sharing is nothing new.

Only three months ago I wrote a blog on a healthcare innovation project which was announced as part of a partnership between Google and the NHS. The planned project is facing scrutiny following a backlash against Google gaining the required access to the medical records of over 1.6 million patients.

Meanwhile NHS England recently pulled its planned Care.data project, which would have seen the extension of the NHS’s database on hospital stays to include data from GP visits. The project was ultimately pulled following widespread condemnation of the impact the move would have on a person’s privacy.

I’d like to highlight why sharing our data can have a benefit to all our lives, over ten years ago, Terry Leahy, the former CEO of Tesco and the man held responsible for making the company what it is today, launched his biggest innovation at the supermarket chain – the Clubcard. Leahy faced enormous press and public outrage over the use of personal data; the card was seen as a way of tracking shoppers’ spending habits, which it was.

However, people started to receive money off vouchers for items based on their shopping habits and suddenly the public perception of the card completely flipped. Now the vast majority of retailers have a club card offering and consumers are quick to sign up. After all, who complains when you get a discount for something you actually want to buy?

The media, and subsequently the public, can be quick to react negatively if they see seemingly private data being used. However, there is often a failure to look at the underlying benefits and long term vision.

The latest move from Ofgem is another prime example of an innovation which is being criticised for the way data will be used, but which could ultimately benefit consumers. The initiative will see Ofgem using the wealth of data it has on every home in the country to help individuals get better value from their energy company.

By having access to such data, an energy company can write to a consumer to offer a £300 saving if they switch. Without the sharing of data, the competitor wouldn’t be able to commit to such a cost reduction. The consumer would therefore be left paying more than they need to. If the public understood these benefits would there really be such a backlash against Ofgem’s plans?

The same can be said for Care.data; criticism of the project is the result of a failure to understand the benefits. For example, imagine you live in the north of England and have an illness cited on your local GP records, and then you fall unwell while on holiday in Cornwall. Currently, if you go to a Cornish hospital passed out in an ambulance, they won’t have a clue about your existing health problem or any medication you are taking. Care.data would have solved that.

The public needs to understand the real benefits in data sharing; negative media headlines on such innovations are only good for the media.

I believe the Google healthcare initiative would not have had the same level of media backlash if the project team had engaged with the public from the outset. Instead, the news broke via the media, which scare mongered and impacted public opinion. By taking control and engaging the market at the start, Google could have communicated the project more effectively by leading on its benefits.

There are a plethora of innovation projects - old and new - which rely on data being shared in a sensible way so the wider public can benefit in the long term. However the key to seeing such innovations come to fruition is making the public less resistant to sharing data, only then will they be able to personally reap the rewards.

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