Has the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the movement in data sharing for societal good? We spoke to Experian’s Jonathan Westley, Chief Data Officer UK&I, to find out

Interview by: Daniel Brigham

In general terms, how can data be used as a force for good in society?

Fundamentally, better data leads to clearer insights and more accurate decision-making. In wider society, this can impact all manner of things, from financial inclusivity to efforts to combat climate change. The pandemic has expanded our understanding of how we can use data to create a positive impact and determine the right response to challenges. It’s demonstrated its huge value in combating society’s biggest problems to business leaders and public sector organisations alike.

How has data been used for good during the pandemic, and what impact has the pandemic had on changing attitudes to data sharing?

During the pandemic, data has shaped our response at the global, national and enterprise level. That’s because when combined with good judgment and expert knowledge, it gives us the raw material we need to plan our actions and then judge the results. For example, Experian DataLabs, the R&D unit for Experian, helped the NHS plan for future waves of COVID-19 cases by modelling the disease characteristics with daily updated public information. Our data scientists used advanced technology and more than 10 public and proprietary data sources to create a simulator that forecasts when and where the next wave of the virus was likely to have an impact on hospital resources. As situations such as social distancing measures change over time, the model’s “what if” simulator can forecast the impact of the pandemic and even future measure-lifting in specific areas – such as one region or a particular NHS Trust.

To be successful in times of crisis, organisations have to address challenges together, sharing data and findings in a coordinated way. Many have found ways of leveraging data assets to assist public health and safety officials in combating the pandemic and have been inspired to use their data for societal good.

Has the pandemic also seen a shift towards businesses wanting to collaborate on data-sharing to support those in need?

Definitely – we recently found that 77% of business leaders want to find ways of using their data for societal good in some form in the wake of the pandemic. This could be done by increasing collaboration with other organisations to better support those in need. It can also be achieved through sharing talent and resources to develop or deliver data products for societal good, providing training, tools or opportunities to those who have lost employment.

How can data sharing help less-advantaged communities?

Data plays a huge part in protecting peoples’ livelihoods. During the pandemic, many have struggled to meet financial commitments amid decreasing household incomes and growing unemployment. Insights generated through data sharing applications, such as Open Banking, can help people in these situations to better grasp their own financial circumstances by helping them to access financial products they may not have been able to before. Data can also be used by organisations to support people who are financially ‘at risk’. This is the basis of our Affordability Passport solution. At the height of the pandemic more than 20 local authorities and charities used the solution to make it easier for them to identify the most vulnerable who need help. By individualising people, the Passport puts people’s best interests at the heart of decisions that affect their financial circumstances and wellbeing. Doing this is vital for successfully supporting these consumers and building trust during a time when many feel financially vulnerable.

How can data help lead to a more inclusive society?

A major area of focus for us relates to financial invisibility. Nearly 5.2 million people in the UK don’t have the data depth for financial systems to make any decision because their financial track record doesn’t hold enough information. A limited financial record for these so-called ‘credit invisibles’ can lead to difficulty accessing products such as loans or mortgages. At Experian, we have reduced the number of people excluded from mainstream financial services by more than 620,000 since 2018, but there’s still a lot of work to do, both in data sharing and financial education, because individuals can actually do things that help their situation.

Improving financial inclusion can only be done with better data sharing. That’s why we work closely with industry bodies and companies to improve data quality and introduce new data sources into our credit reporting. Services like Experian Boost, which uses Open Banking technology to factor people’s transactional information and regular payments into their credit scores, helps individuals to build out their own credit files, potentially tipping the balance between someone being marginally declined and accepted for credit.

Can you tell us how important data is to creating an environment of innovation?

Becoming a data-driven organisation can provide a multitude of benefits — one of which is increased innovation. Data can provide insights and perspectives that guide critical thinking and decision-making in new directions. Yet, many organisations still struggle to leverage data in this way because it’s being produced in a variety of different formats. This makes it incredibly difficult to compare, correlate and combine different data sets internally – let alone externally. Creating an environment of innovation means making data findable, accurate, describable and readable – whether by machine or person. Standardising data in this way is the first step towards harnessing it for innovation purposes. This is particularly important for cloud-based collaboration – where datasets can be uploaded and accessed via secure portals by a range of businesses, who can explore potential uses in tandem. Over recent years, this sandbox model has become increasingly central to catalysing disruptive innovation and tackling societal and business issues.

The public has concerns over access to data. Are they right to have concerns, and what can be done to overcome them?

People are more aware than ever about the data they share and its collective worth when combined with the data of others. Ultimately, they want to feel that any information they share will be respected and protected. Organisations must respond to this concern strategically. Those that hold data need to demonstrate integrity through better data stewardship, transparency and accuracy, in order to build public trust in their data management capabilities. We must also do everything we can to demonstrate the benefits of increased data sharing to the public. We must work towards a culture of continuous communication, ensuring that people are always aware of what their data is being used for and the benefits of sharing that information in exchange for better products, services and experiences.

How do you ensure that data is secure? How big a threat is security to ensuring data is a force for good?

Failures in keeping data secure can lead to a host of issues. Not only can it cause reputational and financial damage, but it can also create distrust around how data is handled. An incident where personal information is stolen can deter people from sharing their data through initiatives like Open Banking.

Therefore, keeping consumer data safe and secure is our top priority. We invest millions in our technology infrastructure, development and support to protect the data of our customers. We have always aspired to set new benchmarks for best practice in our operating standards and our approach to data stewardship.

How can businesses best fortify their data management?

Data management practice can be broken down into four key areas: data standardisation; data skills and literacy; data availability; and responsible data use. Standardisation helps to unlock the value of data by creating a data ecosystem, while helping employees to develop better data skills ensures data knowledge isn’t concentrated on just a few experts within the business. This also facilitates a cultural change across the organisation around the use of data. Demonstrating the value of sharing information makes people more inclined to share data, and privacy-preserving technologies such as personal data vaults give people the confidence to do so. Focusing on improvements in these areas will help businesses and organisation succeed in the years ahead.

Has Experian seen a change in the way banks are utilising technology and data to help people manage their finances?

We’ve seen an incredible boom in digital financial tools over the course of the past year and a half. The number of people sharing their data through Open Banking has tripled since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over half of lenders have also adopted this technology in the last 12 months, helping people manage their finances in more personalised, fluid and intuitive ways online. People are increasingly understanding the ways their data can help them better manage their finances and are calling on it to support their financial management and planning. Banks and financial services companies have responded in kind by creating digital apps and services that provide people with insights to help them better manage their money and access new products.

Finally, how hopeful are you that this concerted effort to use data sharing for societal good will continue post-pandemic?

The pandemic has helped business leaders and organisations to understand the true value of their data. Many see COVID-19 as a defining moment for organisations to set up and use data for societal good. However, just as many are now considering the volumes of data they hold, and how it can be used for good in other ways, after the pandemic has passed. As the world becomes ever more connected, the volume, range and variety of available data will continue to grow at a substantial rate. Organisations recognise now more than ever that when analysed and used correctly, data can have an extraordinary impact. The inclination to make sure this impact is felt by everyone in society won’t go away any time soon.