Big data decision looms for Government's social investment policy

Social Development Minister Anne Tolley's plans for MSD to demand more client data from services it funds may be thwarted. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Shane Cowlishaw looks at how the Government's 'big data' driven plan to tie social investment to the information it receives from private providers is facing a big test in the form of a Privacy Commission decision due at the end of the month.

Down at South Auckland’s Otahuhu Budgeting Services, manager Lesley Matia has been 30 years on the job. During that time she’s helped thousands of struggling people from all walks of life, including those with mental illnesses and others on probation.

Money is always tight running a small social service, but there will be none coming from the Ministry of Social Development (MSD).

Its decision to require the handover of client data in exchange for funding has left hundreds of organisations in a tricky situation.

Matia told Newsroom the service wouldn't take any money if they have to give up their client’s private information – it would be a breach of trust.

“It’s taken them all that courage to come into budgeting, let alone earning all that trust, and it’s just opening doors for the Ministry.

“It’s gonna open a lot of doors for a lot of people throughout New Zealand, you know if you had a private life you wouldn’t want anyone else to have it, eh?”

The concerns

An imminent decision from the Privacy Commission could be the first check on the Government’s data-driven social investment approach.

It revolves around that plan by MSD to expand demands for private client information from contract-holders in exchange for funding, and is due at the end of the month.

Client names, ethnicity, birth dates and dependents' details are wanted by MSD, on the basis their collection would allow it to see, in the long-run, which programmes are working and which aren’t.

The requirement is to be rolled-out to all contract-holders from July. But after concerns were raised by some of those providers the Privacy Commissioner announced an investigation.

All parties involved, including MSD, are now waiting to see which way the decision goes. It could result in a roll-back of the policy if it’s found to be too wide-reaching.

Ang Jury, Women’s Refuge chief executive, has had discussions with both MSD and Social Development Minister Anne Tolley since the privacy investigation was announced. She said these revolved around the numbers of people refuges would be required to report on, which would only be the proportion of clients that were publicly funded.

There would also be no penalties if someone chose not to give their information, but if all clients said no “that would create a problem”, Jury said.

Eventually it would be a decision for individual refuges to make, but with government funding making up an average of 50 to 60 percent of budgets there was little wiggle room.

The policy was not something Women’s Refuge was "in love with", Jury said, and there were real concerns about MSD’s poor history of protecting its data.

While there had been assurances it would only be available to Ministry analysts, many organisations still need convincing.

“We’ve still haven’t had the assurances from MSD about safety, we think they’re getting there but we think they’ve got a bit of work to do,”Jury said.

Why does the Government want your data, and what are the risks?

Spearheaded by former Finance Minister Bill English, the Government has focused on a social investment approach that is far more data driven than the past.

Aimed at making better spending decisions and targeting funding it involves multiple departments including MSD and Justice, but has met with criticism that it ignores the complexities of people and their individual experiences.

“Big Data” has been a buzzword for a few years now as the ease and access to information improves.

It’s of great interest to the Government, who formed the Data Futures Forum in 2014 and tasked it with assessing the opportunities, and risks, of sharing data. The forum then morphed into the Data Futures Partnership to continue the work, bringing together a range of experts from across the field.

In February the Partnership launched an online tool allowing people to explore their comfort levels with different levels of data sharing. This, and other work, will contribute to an eventual set of guidelines created by the Partnership for private and public organisations seeking to use people’s personal data.

Gehan Gunasekara, an Auckland University privacy law specialist, says those standards will need to be robust.

For example, under current law data is not required to be kept in an aggregated form, which would make it harder for people to be easily re-identified.

Gunasekara believes opening up access to more data to provide targeted or better benefits will only work if people believe their privacy is safe – although this right could become a luxury for some.

“The weak and powerless in our society will, of course, have no choice but to share their data and that means people are differently affected depending on their socio-economic status…I think we have to be quite careful to develop standards that are actually workable,” he said.