Testing the ethics of data sharing

Published: 5 February 2020

Two people working at a computer
It is legal to share registrations data with housing services. But is it (entirely) ethical? 

My colleagues and I at Social Finance are working with a number of local government partners — Worcestershire, Suffolk and Hackney Councils, Worcestershire and Suffolk Registration Services and Suffolk Office of Data Analytics— to explore whether housing services around the country can use data direct from registrations services.

The project is funded through the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s Local Digital Fund, which aims to transform the way that local services use data and digital — to fix the plumbing’.

Registrations data is an accurate record of all births, deaths and marriages in an area. Why would housing services need to access it?

The problem: circulation of social housing properties

One of the duties of council housing services is to manage properties when a tenant has died. This usually means identifying a next of kin, and determining whether the other occupants of a property have the right to remain or whether another family should move in.

At the moment, lots of housing services receive data about tenants who pass away via a service called Tell Us Once. This is an optional service that family members can use to report a death to several governmental agencies in one go. However in some places the service has very low take up, and while housing officers have strong local networks to ensure they are notified when a tenant dies, occasionally they don’t find out for some time or struggle to track down the next of kin.

These cases are infrequent, but when they do happen, housing officers can spend a huge amount of time following the official process to close a tenancy. One person we spoke to spent three days trying to locate a next of kin, a long time considering he was responsible for roughly 1,000 properties. It also means that the property itself lies empty, so families must spend longer on the social housing waiting list before moving into a suitable home.

We’re testing whether registrations data could help solve this problem.

Finding a way for housing services to access valuable registrations data

Registrations services have a complete and accurate record of all births, marriages and deaths in an area. The idea is that this could provide housing officers with a more effective safety net’ in cases when they don’t get the information they need from other sources.

Until recently, this data wasn’t available, but under the 2017 Digital Economy Act housing and other local government services have the right to request it. We’re testing whether receiving this data directly can save housing officers valuable time and bring social housing properties back into circulation more quickly.

My colleagues and I were also keen to test whether it is ethical to share this data. Housing services need to manage their combined housing stock to meet the needs of all residents, but in some cases, as Daniel’s experience shows, this can mean moving people out of a property that they have a strong emotional connection to.

It is entirely legal to share registrations data with housing services that will enable them to do this. But is it (entirely) ethical?

Testing the ethics of data sharing

We used the Open Data Institute’s data ethics canvas to initially map out and manage ethical issues related to data sharing, and then spoke to housing officers in our three partner local authorities to understand cases like Daniel’s. These cases are relatively rare, so I’ve found that user diaries are really effective to dig deeper and capture accurate information about how frequently they occur and their impact.

So far, our research suggests that using registrations data as opposed to Tell Us Once will sometimes avoid situations like Daniel’s. But we will continue to test this with housing services before publishing our findings at the end of February.

Ethics is also a big part of Social Finance’s wider approach to data science and digital transformation in local government. For instance, we’ve developed a series of recommendations for councils considering algorithmic decision-making in people services.

This is the first in a series of blogs on ethics, digital and data in local government, so stay tuned!

There are 343 councils in England managing a combined 1.6 million social housing properties, so if we can find a simple solution for housing services to access valuable registrations data directly it could be massively scalable.

We’re therefore keen to test our findings in other local authorities to develop a way of sharing that is standardised, straightforward, meets the needs of housing officers and is, above all, ethical.

If you’re from a housing service, please email rachelle.angeline@socialfinance.org.uk.

Stay up to date

Sign up to our mailing list for regular updates.

We'll keep your data secure and won't share it outside of Social Finance, ever. For more details read our privacy policy.