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Can ‘big data’ help improve social policy? Analysis

Can ‘big data’ help improve social policy?

Private companies have been using data to sell you more stuff better understand consumer behaviour for years. At the most basic level, community organisations have also been collecting and using data as part of their day-to-day operations. Not for commercial gain, but to measure the impact and efficiency of their services, and prove to governments and stakeholders that they are actually making a difference.

But while the advantages of ‘big data’ may be obvious for Woolworths or Qantas—might there be as yet untapped benefits for the people who use the services of the community sector?

When used wisely, data can help target prevention and early intervention activities at those at risk of disadvantage or poor health and wellbeing, generating long-term cost savings for government.

It can also provide a basis for collaboration, supporting a ‘collective impact approach’ to address disadvantage, and allowing for the development of effective local solutions to vexing social problems.

Serious gaps still exist in our knowledge about the characteristics and experiences of people accessing health and community services systems. Organisations currently lack access to the rich data they would need to really make a difference. Might access to big data be the answer?


Private companies have been using your data for years. (Image: Qantas.com)

A joint Councils of Social Service submission to the Productivity Commission is calling for greater data sharing between education, health and human service agencies and community service providers.

Access to “linked data sets” (that is, creating a de-identified common ‘key’ that can be used across multiple data sets) would be a game changer. This would will allow the community sector to better understand people’s journey through the system and identify ‘red flags’ for people who might require extra support, providing opportunities for early intervention.

Organisations would also be in a better position to understand how different issues and systems affect people over time, and frame service delivery accordingly.

But there are risks.

The increased availability of data must also be balanced against the risks to consumers’ privacy, the possibility of abuse and its potential to underpin punitive and paternalistic approaches.

What if information about communities experiencing high levels of disadvantage could lead to insurance companies charging higher premiums?

Or banks offering less attractive loan conditions? What if gambling venues use this data to target people from those communities?

The possible negative consequences of increased data sharing are as limitless as the benefits.

To safeguard against this, VCOSS is urging the Federal Government to launch an independent assessment of the positive and negative impacts on consumers, of any data integration, sharing or use.

Serious thought must be given to how to protect individuals while at the same empowering organisations to help communities as a whole. ■


Banner image: CC/Chris Brooks