A hitchhiker’s guide to information sharing

Stuart Bolton,
Engagement Manager,
Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing

Late one afternoon on 7th December 1990 I was stood at a motorway services slip road just off the M1 with my thumb out waiting for one of the many cars, vans and lorries passing by to stop and offer me a lift.  After less than half an hour a slightly battered Citroen 2CV driven by a student from Cambridge pulled up and the passenger door opened – inviting me on board.

At that time, there were no signs of the blizzards and snow drifts that were on their way and which, only shortly after we set off, were to prevent us heading north to Sheffield.  The motorway system rapidly shut down – eventually trapping thousands of people overnight and cutting off power and water to many more.   

Way back in the late 80’s and in to the early 90’s hitch hiking was my principal method of transport around England and Wales.  It got me from student digs to home, across the country to see friends and even down to the south of France to go rock climbing.  I had lifts from hundreds of people from all walks of life; lorry drivers, dentists, teachers and students, and one thing we all had in common was that we were prepared to take a leap in to the unknown and trust each other.

Over the last three years, the Centre have grown a body of evidence around the cultural, people and behavioural factors that impact on information sharing and, as we have written about in our cross cutting themes report, trust always comes to the top.  Where I have struggled is being able to understand and explain the observable decline in trust in government institutions – such as our health services, council services and central government departments, to hold and use our personal information whilst also seeing a growth in trust in digital companies which we are happy to provide more and more of our personal information to.

When I saw an email for a NESTA’s ‘in conversation’ event with trust expert Rachel Botsman, my interest was piqued and I clicked through to watch a couple of Rachel’s TED talks.  I don’t want to attempt to rehash Rachel’s theories as she explains them so eloquently herself and I am still developing my thinking about how they apply to information sharing.

One point I want to share here is the idea that trust is built on reputation, and that reputation is the measure of how much I will trust you or an organisation.  Over the years’, successive breaches have eroded our institutions reputational capital.  If our institutions continue to operate as they do now the risk is that their reputational capital will only be further eroded and our trust in them to share our information will only reduce further.  However, from Rachel’s observations there appears to be something to be learned from how organisations like Airbnb or Uber work with a different form of ‘distributed’ trust, and how they design and operate their approach to enable them to build their and their users reputational capital.  This is trust redefined for a digital era. 

Right now we are seeing a wave of changes to regulations, legislation and plans, including the National Data Guardian review, Understanding Patient Data ,  the ICO Information Rights Strategic Plan and GDPR – all of which share aims around engaging with the citizens to build our trust in information sharing.  But are these looking in the right direction?  If we want to make real progress in information sharing should institutions also be focussing on improving their own reputational bottom line? Can institutions learn from what is working in the digital space and change how they are designed and work so that they can grow their reputational capital?

Going back to Rachel Botsman’s presentation, I wonder if we can apply the ‘trust stack’ to information sharing? Step one of the trust stack is ‘trust the idea’ – so we’d need to ensure that citizens and professionals trust the idea and concept of information sharing. Step two of the trust stack is ‘trust the platform’ – in other words, trust the organisations they are sharing the information with. The third stack is ‘trust the other user’ – so trusting the people who are sharing and using theirs and others information.

So for those who were wondering what happened on the 7th December 1990 – after that first leap of trust signified by the opening of a car door what ensued was an amazing testament to the capabilities of the ‘tin can on wheels’ that is the 2CV.  We followed a line of least resistance across the county, down closed motorways and blocked A roads, lifting the car over snow banks, passing numerous stranded lorries and abandoned cars to eventually arrive in Llanberis, North Wales sometime early the next morning.

All I needed to do was find the next person with a shared trust in the idea of hitchhiking, the vehicle’s roadworthiness and in each other so I could get a lift back home to Sheffield.

But that’s another story.

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