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Lessons from COVID-19 for participatory futures (part 2)

By 6th November 2020 No Comments

Peter McColl

Futures and Innovation Consultant

This is the second of a three-part blog outlining what participatory approaches are, how they can be applied and the particular significance in the emerging data society

TL;DR: COVID-19 is a clear signal that the challenges of the 21st century will be ones that demand a collaborative response. And we are beginning to realise that collaborative responses are most effective when they enjoy broad and deep support. In an increasingly fractious world, that may seem difficult, but we already know some of the ways we can create shared understandings in the contemporary age.

In the first of these blogs I identified what a participatory approach is, how it can help with responses to COVID-19 and why this means we should develop a participatory futures approach. Here I work through what that might mean.

One area in which participatory futures approaches will be hugely valuable is that of technology and data. The impact of technology on our lives is far-reaching, but public understanding and discussion of these impacts is limited. For example, one of the vital problems in rolling out automated vehicles will be deciding what happens if they are going to crash – should they protect pedestrians or vehicle occupants? And how should we decide on these principles? There is no right answer, but whatever we decide, these are questions that demand citizen deliberation. And in order to deliberate, citizens need the skills in the sort of deliberation that will allow for positive outcomes.

In order to achieve this, I believe we need to increase public participation in debates about the rapidly changing impact of technology, which in turn will increase wider public understanding and continuously improve the quality of debate.

At present data and digital innovation is moving so rapidly that as a society we need to find ways to ensure people are aware of the impact of these changes. Companies like Airbnb and Uber have outmanoeuvred regulators by providing platform services competing with heavily regulated hotels and taxis. The processes that we have relied on to understand and govern innovation are much too unwieldy to react to an industry that has ‘move quickly and break things’ as its motto. We need to be able to anticipate these approaches, and to do so with popular consent we need much more citizen participation in designing our future society.

Ethics panels have helped to inform regulation of innovation in genetics and other frontier disciplines. Bringing experts together to collate and evaluate evidence is an effective way to inform a process. The key to good participation is not to remove expertise, but to reorient the direction of that expert insight. Instead of being fed into a legislative process through drafting and committees, it could inform a participatory process.

COVID-19 offers an excellent example of how this could work. There is an urgent need for a track-and-trace approach that utilises mobile phone data. But any such approach is fraught with difficulties. The higher the uptake of any track and trace up the more effective it will be. While many people will have no concern about this, some citizens will be anxious about who knows where they have been. This means that the body must be trusted. Similarly some citizens will be very reluctant to have their data held by for-profit corporations.

The recent evidence that COVID-19 is transmitted through aerosol infection makes tracking and tracing more important but also more difficult where people may not realise they have shared spaces. The fact that nearly everyone has a device that can tell them if they have been in the same space as someone who may have been infected offers the most effective way to alert people that they may have been infected. This is effectively a data commons. It is a shared resource that has widespread utility, requires stewardship from all (just as environmental commons like the atmosphere or watercourses do) and can yield substantial benefits beyond the investment required to maintain them. The existing Scottish track and trace app is good, but by prioritising very high levels of privacy it sacrifices the richness of data that could otherwise be harnessed for public good.

We must start by developing a broad public understanding of how data is accumulated, stored and used by public and private organisations. The current very low level of understanding of the value and utility of data means that there is very little opportunity to harness public creativity or have useful conversations about how data can and should be governed. We are all creating data all the time through our mobile phones, internet use, credit and debit card spending and even being captured on CCTV. This data should not simply belong to those who have captured it. The citizens who have created it should have a determining say in how it is used.

Building a system that has the confidence of as many citizens as possible while making it as effective as possible is within our grasp; but it requires us to develop both public acceptance of data and more awareness of how data can help to save lives. It can also allow aggregation of data that makes it more effective in allocating resources.

Putting participation at the heart of these futures will both make the process more effective and build public trust in the process. In a life-or-death situation, this is of critical concern.

More concretely and immediately, Scotland could easily pioneer a track-and-trace approach that builds on our excellent public health system. There are substantial first-mover advantages in creating a trusted way of governing data. And the benefits of doing this could spread well beyond the current crisis.

To have an effective track-and-trace approach, mobile phone data will be vital. The current Bluetooth-based approach gives minimal information. We could have substantially richer data by using wifi and mobile data. This would give us the opportunity to understand who has been where without taking names. But there are obvious civil liberties questions about this. Black Lives Matter has highlighted how little trust BAME communities have in the state and its institutions.

Where the existing app compromises on richness of data, the long-term answer lies in creating a trusted place for this data to be held. A body that curates data, makes it interoperable and available to those who need it is relatively easy to create. What would be novel would be doing this in a way that puts participation at the heart of any decision making about data. By creating a scheme of ownership of data, which identifies where ownership is shared and allows the creation of social as well as economic value, we can begin to tackle a much wider range of social problems. Taking this approach can build public awareness of what data is and how it can be used, and it will make sure that future infectious diseases can be tracked and traced.

The Windrush scandal offers an excellent example of the failure to properly include citizens in the management of data. Vital information about the movements of British residents into and out of the country were destroyed without the knowledge of those residents. Any such information has, surely, two owners. The body that captured the data in the first place and the citizen about whom the data was captured. In the case of the Windrush, a proper recognition of this co-owernship of data would have required citizens to consent to the destruction of their data. This requires a totally different approach – and one which builds a network of trusted intermediary organisations that can advise on the best approach for citizens to data.

In the late 19th and early 20th century a range of trustee banks, cooperatives and building societies emerged to bring financial services to the urban working class who had not previously had access to loan finance. Those new financial institutions democratised finance through the 20th century. Data trusts would fill a similar role in democratising the curation, control and use of data. Instead of data being an asset that citizens create but have no control over, it will create new opportunities to use data for the common good. In this way we can create data commons that both protect privacy and allow us to prioritise social uses for data – like track and tracing infectious diseases.

It is a cliche to say that data is the new oil. Except oil is a natural resource owned by a small number of individuals and corporations. Data is created by us all, and should be socially controlled – California Governor Gavin Newsom is suggesting a data dividend for all citizens from companies like Facebook and Google.  But there are huge opportunities if we can have a trusted way to share our data and create public good. Saving lives from COVID-19 might just be the start. Scotland has some of the best health data in the world. If we could add a way to manage citizen data in a trusted way to this, we could begin to use it to transform many other areas of life. This goes well beyond a data dividend to creating a data commons that can be used, with citizen consent, to create social and environmental good.

In the next blog I will identify direct recommendations on how we can create a participatory futures approach to governing the data society.