We’ll start with the good news. British academics and universities are well trusted by the public. Not as trusted as your doctor or the National Health Service, but more than Amazon, the police, the government or, brrr, the press. On a scale of one to 10, a new Ipsos MORI Public Affairs survey gives academe a 6.61, which in these parlous times is a really high score. (Those with a degree or higher were markedly more trusting of their old professors than respondents with no formal qualifications.)
So given those good feelings, in these days of Big Data the British public certainly feels safe in handing over its personal data to the knights of scholarship, right? Umm, yes, but not so much, although they still put more trust in the academy than, say, in banks, insurance companies, or, brrr, the press.
This credibility gap—which is mild for researchers compared to other sectors–is symptomatic of an overall “data trust deficit,” according to the Royal Statistical Society, which commissioned the poll and released its analysis of the results Thursday. Nearly all organizations have lower trust on data use than general trust, the RSS noted. Online retailers having the biggest deficit, but even public spirited institutions like charities still generated concerns. Luckily for the press, it’s sufficiently reviled at the moment that when asked about its data practices there wasn’t room at the bottom to evidence a big difference.
“The media, internet companies, telecommunications companies and insurance companies all come at the bottom of a ‘trust in data’ league table,” reads a research note accompanying the results. Between 4 and seven percent of respondents had a high level of trust that these tarnished institutions would play fair with personal data, compared to a still anemic 41 percent trusting that data practices of their general practitioner and 36 percent the NHS itself. A quarter have a high level of trust in academics, which may be depressing but remains a relatively strong showing.
The results are based on two surveys conducted by Ipsos MORI, both from an online quota survey of British adults aged 16-75. Fieldwork for most questions consisted of 2,019 interviews between June 23-25. One question was placed on a later online omnibus of 1,000 GB adults between July 15-18. To cut down on survey length, some questions were asked in smaller samples, of no fewer than 505. The data was been weighted by age, gender, region, social grade, working status, main shopper.
The RSS, though, isn’t highlighting the empty part of the glass as much as the full. Most respondents were opposed in general to data-sharing – until talk of safeguards was introduced. Practices like anonymizing data, providing opt-outs for the skittish, fines and prison terms for data abusers, and strict controls on who can access the data when, all helped push up willingness to share.
It also helps if respondents feel the data will generate policies or practices that benefit them directly, such as in their medical care, or it will help catch fraudsters or improve security. And the young are more trusting than the old, especially when it comes to academic researchers and universities.
“The message for policymakers therefore is that they need to clearly communicate the value of any data sharing they wish to gain support for, and they need to put safeguards in place,” wrote Hetan Shah, the executive director of the RSS, in an email blast announcing the survey. “It is also noteworthy that there is greater opposition to data-sharing for commercial purposes, and so this is an area where policymakers must tread very carefully.”
As @williamheath tweeted, “Stats pros may be the only public servants who understand need for respect for personal data.”
“Usage creep” was the biggest concern the public had about their data, although that was a much greater concern for data supplied to private industry and the British government than the academy.
Although the RSS survey isn’t unalloyed good news for data-hungry researchers in the UK, it’s still heartening. Looking past government uses, the survey found “a clear hierarchy, with most support for data sharing with researchers, then charities, and lastly companies. If the organisation is also working with/for the government, support increases further.”
Let’s look specifically at anonymized data. Again, apart from the government, researchers had the most support for receiving and parsing your data (and keep in mind that “even if data use causes no harm, people still find it ‘creepy’”):
The public showed much higher support than opposition for sharing anonymised data with researchers in universities and similar organisations, to help them conduct government-funded research.
50% said they would support this (12% strongly support, 38% tend to support), 30% neither support nor oppose, and 17% said they would oppose this (7% strongly oppose, 10% tend to oppose).
Respondents were also quite supportive of researchers using anonymised data to conduct research for companies or industry.
44% said they would support this (9% strongly support, 35% tend to support), 28% neither support nor oppose it, and 23% said they would oppose it (8% strongly oppose, 15% tend to oppose).
In a sense, researchers have been grandfathered in from a pre-digital age as a trusted brand, and can remain in that privileged position as long as they follow some stringent rules and provide a public good.
As an RSS press release quotes Shah, “In this data-rich world, companies and government have to earn citizens’ trust in how they manage and use data – and those that get it wrong will pay the price.”