CSaP Policy Challenge Workshop: 'Big Data and Policy'

15 December 2014


Reported by Shona Jane Lee, ESRC-Funded CSaP Policy Intern (October 2014 - January 2015)

CSaP runs the first workshop as part of the Policy Challenge in Data Science and Policy

On 3rd December 2014 CSaP ran the first of its Data Science and Policy policy challenges workshops, entitled “Big Data and Policy”. This workshop was organised in partnership with the PHG Foundation and the Cambridge Big Data Strategic Research Initiative. The workshop was chaired by Professor Anna Vignoles from the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. This workshop, comprised of a wide range of expertise and policy experience, was the first policy challenge discussion in its series. It was aimed at identifying some of the key opportunities for government to improve the delivery and implementation of public services by using novel tools to link and analyse large governmental datasets. Prof. Anna Vignoles opened the workshop, outlining some of the policy challenges and potential opportunities of using data science for policy and governance, before introducing four presentations from academic research and policy perspectives alike.

Professor Peter Wadhams presented the benefits of taking Big Data approaches in Artcic Climate Science research, demonstrating the ways in which combining large data sets gives us a more in-depth understanding of the scale and speed of climate change occurring both spatially and temporally. Professor Sheila Bird then shared her experiences linking large data sets for epidemiological studies in the health sector, including her own record linkage studies on quantifying HIV-infected injectors released from prison in Edinburgh. Professor Anna Vignoles presented the ways education research has benefited from being able to access and link some of the UK’s “amazing array of cohort datasets“, and some of the obstacles to these kinds of approaches, namely legal barriers to accessing large governmental datasets. Chris Fleming, Head of Data & Analytics at the Government Office for Science then presented examples of prototypes built to inform governance and decision making, providing some insight from a policy perspective and insight into ongoing approaches to harnessing large governmental and public datasets.

A lively and productive discussion then followed, with participants agreeing on the need to shift focus toward “synthesis, not swathes of data”, and the linkage of available data using innovative tools. Associated challenges to this included the lag between the rapid advancement of technological innovation and inadequate legal frameworks regarding data access, privacy, and protection. In turn this related to the key issue of public understanding, acceptability and trust in data linkage for governance.

The workshop was a huge success and CSaP would like to thank all of the participants for contributing to such a fruitful first session in the Data Science and Policy series. We look forward to building on the outcomes of the workshop and moving forward with the Policy Challenge programme.

Banner image from NATS Press Office on Flickr

Professor Prof Sheila M. Bird

MRC Biostatistics Unit, University of Cambridge

Professor Anna Vignoles

The Leverhulme Trust

Professor Peter Wadhams

Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP), University of Cambridge