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Opinion: December 2011

We should make more use of public data

As long as we do it wisely, says Matthew Woollard

Researchers now have access to the Annual Business Inquiry. They have used it to show that the Climate Change Levy has not had a negative effect on employment, output and productivity. The Department of Energy and Climate Change can use this research to inform future environmental policies.

As long as we do it wisely, says Matthew Woollard

Researchers now have access to the Annual Business Inquiry. They have used it to show that the Climate Change Levy has not had a negative effect on employment, output and productivity. The Department of Energy and Climate Change can use this research to inform future environmental policies.

The government routinely collects a significant quantity of data which has the potential to inform and improve society. I say ‘potential’ because the evidence for the effect of these data being openly available is not yet fully proven, but it is clear that making certain data available can provide direct efficiencies in public services and choice for consumers. There is also the potential for making accountability real, and increasing transparency of government policy decisions. All of these benefits need qualification, but until more public data are available these statements are unlikely to be tested.

Ideology distorts

Some may have qualms that making some routinely-collected government data available to the public has a detrimental impact on society. There is a strong opinion, even among those who support open data, that the publication of school league tables has not had the desired effect on improving educational standards, and that real choice engendered by their availability is an illusion.

This may be the result of these data being used inappropriately or for a purpose for which they are not ideally suited. Once an ideological agenda is introduced over social data, distorting effects may occur. In these cases, it is not a question of making information available which causes this, rather the manner in which data are analysed and interpreted.

Appropriate security

Making selected, high quality, publicly-created data available in a usable format which protects the confidentiality of respondents would seem to have clear benefits. For example, UK student loans data might help to show the long-term impact of student loan debt on other life choices and consumption patterns, as has already been done in the USA. The data have already been captured - in some cases as administrative data, a by-product of government activity - so there are no additional data collection costs, distribution costs are relatively inexpensive, and thus benefits should outweigh the overall additional cost.

These data should also be managed and maintained throughout their entire life-cycle, which could add to the expense. Data which have not been anonymised should also have appropriate levels of controlled access applied if this personal information has value to inform policy and help answer the big problems of society today. The General Household Survey is available to researchers in different versions with access conditions reflecting the ‘security’ of the data.

Linking databases

It is generally accepted that high quality data are required to support high quality research, but what might be thought of as ‘core’ low-level data can also be important to inform and contextualise analyses, and may be important to underpin the linking of data previously thought inappropriate for these purposes.

Linking the road traffic injury database to Hospital Episode Statistics has already created valuable data on accident circumstances and medical diagnoses. Linking data will add value to existing and other open data. Carefully prepared and well documented open data will improve research productivity.

It is time to deal appropriately with the commonly held views against data sharing. The time and cost for preparation needs to be lowered; the potential for misinterpretation and misunderstanding must be addressed; appropriate data formats must be used; the possibilities of improper release and even malicious misuse must be checked and the loss of data integrity controlled for. These tasks are not insurmountable. Let us embark on an experiment and test the water by examining how these data are used.

Public engagement in universities

Warming up nicely, says Maggie Leggett

Warming up nicely, says Maggie Leggett

Times are changing for public engagement in universities. The activity is becoming more visible; driven, in part, by the ‘impact agenda’. Before the government’s last spending review, scientists made a powerful case about the economic and societal impacts of research, helping to secure a partial ring-fencing of the research budget. But now the government and the main research funding bodies are asking for evidence.  Researchers applying for grants to many funders now have to outline how their research might achieve impact. The impact of concluded research will be assessed in the Research Excellence Framework (REF), whose outcomes directly affect the size of the grant each university is awarded from the Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE).

At the same time, the rise in undergraduate fees is making students feel more like stakeholders in universities’ activities, and they will be scrutinising closely what universities have to offer.

All this could suggest that times are positive for public engagement. However, the recession has hit us hard and money is tight. The Research Councils particularly have set a challenging pace for change in embedding public engagement in research grant applications. The closure of some of the stand-alone sources of funding for public engagement is still being misinterpreted by many academics.

So what temperature is public engagement in universities?

Up and down

In my view, those academics who consider public engagement a moral duty, or something they enjoy and want to do, will continue to do what they think is right. Most of the conversations with them are about how their preferred activities fit with the demands of the funders.

Those who are less sure are very affected by the perceived signals from the funders. The Research Councils continue to be leaders in this field and agents of considerable change within universities, but we do need continuing communication from all funders about the value of public engagement, and more visibility for the Concordat for Public Engagement that many of them signed last year.

Inclusion of engagement in the REF has to be positive. However, the lack of ability to reward dialogue through it is worrying.  Equally perturbing is the potential for the large numbers of people reached through the media to be overly seductive to judging panels at the expense of more targeted and dialogic activity. HEFCE has worked closely with the public engagement community, through the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement, to achieve the best possible guidelines in the available timeframe, but impact is hard to measure, and it will inevitably take some time to get right.

Fresh breezes

Another significant change is student engagement. There are various moves in this area, led both by students themselves, and by academics, that neatly coincide with strengthening agendas around the student experience. Students want opportunities to engage with society that link with and form part of their degree studies. As universities, we need to provide courses that are enticing and provide students with the skills they need, both for future employment and to be active citizens.

Students are the researchers, leaders and community members of tomorrow. Their sheer numbers and diversity could help us to meet different communities’ needs better. And thinking about ways they can engage is blissfully free of various funders’ views about what engagement can and can’t be.

So what is the temperature of public engagement in universities? I’d say it’s warming up nicely. It is still possible we could get into hot water over the REF, if it proves too hard to prove the impact of engagement, or by academics feeling forced to do public engagement and not doing it well. Let’s hope we don’t get burned.

Dr Matthew Woollard
Dr Matthew Woollard is Director of the UK Data Archive and the Economic and Social Data Service, based at the University of Essex
Maggie Leggett
Maggie Leggett is Head of the Centre for Public Engagement at the University of Bristol
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