Public Perceptions of ‘Public Good’ Use of Data for Research and Statistics

Mary Cowan

Shayda Kashef

Dr Mary Cowan and Shayda Kashef share about the new report from the Office for Statistics Regulation which looks into public perceptions of the “public good”.     


If you’ve ever wondered what ‘public good’ means, you’re in excellent company. Public good can seem a vague and nebulous concept, potentially because the meaning can differ depending on the perspective you take.

Public good underpins the work of both the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) and ADR UK (Administrative Data Research UK) and, to fulfil our respective visions and create a stronger understanding of public good, we believe it is particularly important to understand how the public perceive the ‘public good’. Data is collected from people when they interact with public services, therefore the public play a vital role in enabling research and helping develop knowledge about society. Additionally, statistics are a public asset, and the lifeblood of democracy, therefore understanding what members of the public think can be achieved through data for research and statistics is integral to achieving public good.

Following several reviews of recent literature (Cowan & Humpherson, 2020; Waind, 2020), it has been established that there is no consensus on what members of the general public conceptualise as ‘public good’ within the context of the use of data for research and statistics. This represents an important gap to fill, and last year the ESRC’s (Economic and Social Research Council’s) ADR UK programme and OSR collaborated to carry out research exploring this topic.

To better understanding public perceptions of public good, we think it is crucial to directly engage with the public therefore we used a qualitative method called ‘public dialogue’ to do just that.

Our jointly run public dialogue sessions (facilitated by Kohlrabi Consulting) invited 68 members of the public from across the UK to attend workshops where they could share their views on public good. Our workshops generated a huge amount of insight, the key findings of which are summarised below:

  1. Public Involvement: Our participants want the public to be involved in making decisions about public good
  2. Addressing Inequalities: They believe data for research and statistics needs to address inequalities in order to serve public good
  3. Clear Communication: They are keen for public-facing communication to be made clearer and more accessible
  4. Minimising Harm: Our participants do not want any data they share to contribute towards something harmful
  5. Best Practice Safeguarding: There is a desire for best practice safeguarding to be adopted universally to strengthen public confidence in sharing their data

Whilst we work to incorporate these findings into our own practices, we think our report contains important lessons for the broader data for research and statistics community. The findings have the potential to contribute towards helping us all achieve more impact through our work and provide a greater sense of purpose in serving the public.

We believe all of the findings are important and should be considered independently and in relation to each other. For the purpose of this blog, we’ve decided to unpack the fifth finding further which may be of interest to those keen to maximise the impact of data for research.

Whilst this finding can best be described as ‘Best Practice Safeguarding’, it encapsulated several elements linked to public confidence in data sharing and use. In the public dialogue discussions, our participants touched on relevant and interesting subjects such as the missed use of data (the deliberate not sharing of data that could be used for research, Morrow, 2020), missingness within datasets (due to poor data collection methods or the lack of disclosing personal information) and synthetic data (a version of a real dataset that uses made-up data generated at random but follows the same patterns as the actual dataset it is based on; synthetic data is typically used for code analysis or training purposes).

When we asked our participants how they think data for research and statistics can serve the public good, one answer they gave was to maximise safe and secure data use. Participants were relatively confident in suggesting that people’s lives could be made better by collecting, sharing, and linking even more data than is currently held. However, the condition for doing this was that best practice safeguarding should be adopted universally to support public confidence in sharing their data. The Five Safes framework was described to participants as an example of how safe-guarding can happen through every stage of the researcher journey; we heard strong endorsement of this approach.

Participants also felt strongly that the missed use of data and missing data were harmful to evidence-based decision-making for research and policymaking aimed at better understanding society. Despite a minority of participants suggesting they had a sense of fatigue related to disclosing data to public services, thinking data about them was constantly being collected, there was still a feeling that more data and better use of existing data could be used to improve the quality of life for everyone in society. Where there was hesitancy around sharing personal data, it seemed to concern specific types of data related to identity, e.g., sexuality or religion. However, the origin of this hesitancy was related to a lack of explanation as to why the data was being collected.

This relates to another finding we had; ‘Clear Communication’. Participants felt that hearing more about public good outcomes from data used for research and statistics would strengthen public support for data sharing. Perhaps there are opportunities for good news stories that we should be prioritising. The use of data for research and statistics has contributed to a wealth of insights that can and have improved peoples’ lives, and the public wants to hear about it.

We hope these findings provide useful insights into our work and inspire others to consider how they can better serve public good and achieve impact through their work. If you’d like to discuss these findings or have any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!

About the Authors

Shayda Kashef (@shayda_k) is a Public Engagement Manager for the ADR UK (Administrative Data Research UK) programme. Shayda’s focus is to demonstrate the trustworthiness of ADR UK’s work and maximise the public benefit of administrative data research.

Dr Mary Cowan (@DrMaryLouCowan) is a Research Specialist in the Office for Statistics Regulation (the regulatory arm of the UK Statistics Authority). Mary works on OSR’s Research Programme. OSR have a vision that statistics will serve the public good, and the Research Programme is dedicated to developing the understanding of public good.

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