When government collects data, is it ever a good thing?

London’s transportation authority (Transportation for London) recently released a report on how it used the public wifi system in the Tube to collect insights on traveler behavior. They collected and anonymized the millions of uniquely identifiable MAC addresses from devices that auto-connected to the wifi in each station.

Depending on your persuasions, this could either be exciting or terrifying. It’s exciting because your government is innovating and trying to gather consumer insights with the intention of better serving its customers (the taxpayer). It’s terrifying because you know your government is collecting data on you, and little can be done to ensure their commitment to data protections and privacy are taken seriously.

Unlike companies like Facebook or Google, which make no claims to anonymize, sanitize, or pseudonymize the data collected on their users, the City of London is obliged by various data protection laws to irreversibly encrypt personal user data. The question many seem to have is: who holds the City of London accountable?

Despite these concerns, I am actually a big fan of what the City of London is trying to do. Right now we complain (with plenty of justification) that our governments lack any inclination toward data-driven decision making. What we are seeing in London is a perfect example of a government trying to make its decisions, and deploy the taxpayer’s money, in more thoughtful and evidence-based ways.

But the knee-jerk reaction of fear and distrust from the average citizen makes this kind of innovation difficult. And this reaction is worsened when the citizen’s privacy and personal data is in a precarious situation.

So. What can the City of London do to continue its collection of data in an effort to be more streamlined and efficient?

  1. Communicate intentions. Make a demonstrable effort to communicate to users, and the taxpaying public more broadly, that you plan to collect specific kinds of data for specific, service delivery improvements.
  2. Describe the service improvements. Demonstrate why collecting the data is important, and what outcomes
  3. Share the data sets. Depending on the sensitivity and context of the data, it should be made available where possible. Since the taxpayer paid for the data and its collection, it belongs in the public domain.
  4. Deliver. This one is obvious. If this data gets collected and fancy reports are published, but little is done in the way of actually improving service delivery, then there isn’t much value add is there?