Everyone’s cup of tea: Finding the right blend for responsible data innovation

Every day, 95% of British households boil their electric kettle – 40% of houses doing it at least 4 times a day – helping us drink 100 million cups of tea a day. There is no more British routine. So much so, that when an elderly person in a council-run home in south London failed to boil their kettle one morning, a sensor raised an automated alert to their social care worker. The carer visited the elderly person, saw that they had fallen in the night, and phoned an ambulance, ultimately saving their life. 

This example comes from the South-London Partnership, a coalition of five London boroughs who have one of the UK’s most ambitious smart cities projects, connecting data sources from sensors across the region to make powerful decisions in over 40 service areas.

Don’t spill the tea

The technology exists to go much further. But, whilst we want to save and improve lives, many are rightly concerned by the risks to privacy in tracking theuse of electronics in their home. 

It is therefore important to protect their data and to strike the right balance between risk and reward in the use of new technologies. London’s, London Office of Technology and Innovation (LOTI) are working out how to do so, grappling with these thorny issues on a daily basis.

The stakes are high. National polling in the UK shows that trust in government to use data is already low, threatening our ability to deploy potentially lifesaving solutions. The most up-to-date tracker survey from the national agency, the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, puts government as the second-least trusted organisation in managing data, only ahead of social media companies with only 40% trusting government across a range of behaviours.

The strongest drivers of  trust in government to manage their data were whether they already trust government, and whether they agree that data is good for society. From this, LOTI drew two key lessons that shape our work on data ethics: first, efforts need to be made to build trustin government more broadly – not just around the specifics of technology, and second, that residents want us to innovate with data to produce social value and improve their lives. 

The South-London Partnership is taking important steps to do so. First, in their procurement of sensors, officers made clear that they wouldn’t accept any bids that included facial recognition / listening or tracking technology. They didn’t see how it could provide value, and if anything posed risks given well-documented biases in the technology. Second, they created a public map of all the sensors they use, including the type of data that each sensor collects, providing transparency to the public about the council’s data collection.

Yet we are all in the process of learning and testing different approaches. City governments are searching for solutions through ‘AI Localism’ – experimentating with practical solutions to governing AI or algorithms in lieu of central government regulation, which lags behind the technology applications.

Everyone’s invited

In London, we believe the values and approaches to governing emerging technologies should be guided by the people whom we serve – our citizens. For example, Camden Council’s Data Charter was created through a Resident Panel – a mini-citizen assembly – complimented by a survey of the borough and a host of distributed mini-dialogues across their borough. 

This Charter proposes seven principles by which the council should operate when they undertake data projects including transparency, accountability, fairness, and privacy. The Resident Panel also makes governance recommendations to the Council, for example that they should publish all of their data-sharing agreements as transparently as possible. Together, this represents the first proper example of participatory data governance in our city, and a model for us to build on.

Ultimately, in the same way that residents shape the decisions we make about transport, or planning, or climate, we believe in a democracy that they should also be part of the decisions we make about algorithms that affect their lives. And, when we do this, we see that residents don’t just expect us to work to high ethical standards, but they also expect us to innovate and use data to improve their lives. And that – as much as the tea – is what gets us out of bed in the morning.

Read more on the OECD work on Data innovation for SMEs.

Researcher & Data Ethicist at LOTI | + posts

Sam Nutt is Researcher and Data Ethicist at the London Office of Technology and Innovation (LOTI). As the first Data Ethicist in UK local government, he leads LOTI's London Data Ethics Service, providing practical project and policy-level guidance to local government with the goal to establish London as one of the leading cities in the world for the ethical and responsible use of data. Sam also leads LOTI's work on public participation and previously on the future of work. Prior to joining LOTI, Sam worked in the OECD's Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (OPSI).