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Trustworthy data governance will unlock innovation, research suggests

A major new CDEI poll finds that the public believe digital technology has a role to play in tackling the pandemic, but its potential is not being fully realised.

The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI), the UK government’s advisory body on the responsible use of AI and data-driven technology, has published new research on the use of AI and data-driven technology in the UK’s COVID-19 response, highlighting insights into public attitudes, as well as trends it has identified.

The major longitudinal study, with a representative sample of over 12,000 people, ran from June to December 2020. The results show significant public support over that period for the use of data-driven technology to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost three quarters (72%) of the UK population felt that digital technology had the potential to be used in response to the outbreak - a belief shared across all demographic groups. A majority of the public (average 69%) also showed support, in principle, for a number of specific use-cases - including technologies that have not been widely adopted - such as wearable technology to aid social distancing in the workplace.

However, many respondents felt that the potential of data-driven technology was not being fully realised. Fewer than half (42%) said digital technology was making the situation in the UK better (only 7% claimed it was making matters worse). Respondents cited concerns about whether people and organisations would be able to use the technology properly (39%). This was more than double the number who pointed to problems with the technology itself (17%). This points to an opportunity gap - a disconnect between support for technology’s potential, and the extent of its current application.

The research uncovered a clear relationship between trustworthy governance and support for the adoption of new technologies. When controlling for all other variables, the CDEI found that ‘trust that the right rules and regulations are in place’ is the single biggest predictor of whether someone will support the use of digital technology. This was substantially more predictive than attitudinal variables such as people's level of concern about the pandemic, belief that the technology would be effective, and demographic variables such as age and education. Just under half (43%) said existing rules and regulations were sufficient to ensure the technology is used responsibly, still close to a quarter (24%) disagreed. Older respondents tended to have lower levels of trust in the existing rules and regulations.

The CDEI urges action to build trustworthy governance that earns the confidence of citizens over the long-term, pointing to principles outlined in its Trust Matrix, such as enhancing accountability and transparency. There is currently relatively low knowledge about where to seek recourse in cases where data-driven technology has caused harm: 45% do not know where to raise concerns if they are unhappy with the way digital technology was being used. This finding is consistent with other CDEI-commissioned research: 68% of people reported that they would not know who to complain to if they felt that an unfair automated decision had been made about them in response to a job application.

The report also highlights trends and patterns relating to the use of AI and data-driven technology during the pandemic. One of these is that, aside from advancing vaccine research, AI did not play the outsized role many thought it would in relief efforts, in part due to a lack of access to data on COVID-19 to train algorithms. Instead, conventional data analysis, underpinned by new data sharing agreements, has made the biggest difference to the work of health services and public authorities.

Edwina Dunn, Deputy Chair for the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, said: “Data-driven technologies including AI have great potential for our economy and society. We need to ensure that the right governance regime is in place if we are to unlock the opportunities that these technologies present. The CDEI will be playing its part to ensure that the UK is developing governance approaches that the public can have confidence in.”

John Whittingdale, Minister of State for Media and Data at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said: "We are determined to build back better and capitalise on all we have learnt from the pandemic, which has forced us to share data quickly, efficiently and responsibly for the public good. This research confirms that public trust in how we govern data is essential. Through our National Data Strategy we have committed to unlocking the huge potential of data to tackle some of society's greatest challenges, while maintaining our high standards of data protection and governance."

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