In November, I had the privilege to attend the first meeting of the Public-Academic Research Colloquium (PARC): Leveraging Administrative Data for Social Policy in Washington D.C. In my role as legal research fellow for the Administrative Data Research Centre Scotland it is a seldom opportunity when I get to sit back and listen (rather than speak!) to experiences in data sharing, let alone in my homeland of the United States!
The purpose of PARC was to ‘bring together national and international scholars who are actively involved in exemplary projects that showcase the use of administrative data to advance social policy. An additional aim of this conference was to discuss the challenges of this emerging field of public-academic research practice.’ As part of the legal team at the UK’s Administrative Data Research Network (ADRN) I continue to identify the key challenges to the reuse of administrative data for research and develop potential solutions to these barriers. Thus, I was keen to hear whether the challenges faced in the US would be like those faced by public authorities in the UK, which often revolve around risk-averse cultures that impede the sharing of data even when it may be in the public interest to do so. I also wondered what solutions have worked in the US to move beyond cultures of caution and allow the responsible sharing of data.
It would be a Herculean task to distil all the nuggets of knowledge I gained from the PARC programme; discussion which featured inspiring case studies of data sharing projects leading to improvements in educational, social and health outcomes across the US. However there are at least three, key take-away points which have changed my mind-set on how I should approach the challenges we face when sharing data in the UK.
The first take-away is that the challenges faced always seem to come back to culture; cultures surrounding administrative data which consequently shape data sharing behaviours. Cultures impact how stakeholders view and act upon data. Cautious and risk-averse cultures are common both in the US and UK. The cultural changes that are required to overcome this are unamenable to quick or technical fixes. What specifically can be done to overcome cultural barriers to data sharing?
The second key take-away may help answer this question. It relates to how we frame our discussions around data sharing which impacts what can and will be achieved. In response to the inevitable lawyer joke during the programme (I’m a lawyer and found it impossible to not respond to it!) I explained that I thought of my role as a problem-solver as opposed to a nay-sayer which many non-lawyers view us as. However, later in the day, I was challenged on this by Bruno Sobral, Director of the One Health Initiative at Colorado State University, who presented on collaborative working across sectors and disciplines. For Bruno, overcoming the challenges of accessing and sharing administrative data required an understanding of the various motivations of stakeholders in the data landscape. During the Q&A Bruno said he would like to address the comment I had made earlier about ‘problem solving’. His response was: when we start a conversation (with an intended data sharing partner) on the basis that we can help solve their ‘problems’, this starts off the relationship on a negative tone. Our potential partners in data sharing will automatically feel defensive about what they do, or do not do, in regards to their data. Instead, our discussions should start with the question of what do we want to create together? By framing our discussions on data sharing from a positive and common ground, as opposed to problematizing one or both party’s data practices, intended partners are more likely to become actual partners in a mutually beneficial initiative.
The third and final take away from my visit was that cultural barriers and the solutions to overcoming them always boil down to people, the relationships we create and the trust we engender over time. Even if the institutions we work for eventually become ‘trusted’, this must always be supported by the relationships and cultures within and between partner organisations. By framing discussions over data sharing in the cooperative way Bruno suggested, we have better chances at creating trusting relationships with potential partners and therefore achieving the improvements to the health and welfare of society that we strive for.