Yesterday, Camden Council agreed a new Data Charter. The Charter puts local residents at the heart of the decisions taken about how data is used to deliver services and make decisions.

The past two years have shown the value of sharing health and social care data to help tackle the pandemic. But they have also clearly demonstrated the need to maintain public trust in how data is shared and used. In the long term, trust will only be maintained if the public are effectively involved in the decisions about the collection and use of their data. Camden’s Data Charter is the start of a process to do just this.

In Camden we make extensive use of a wide range of data to improve the lives of our residents and their experiences with council services to achieve the most effective and timely results.

We are aware however that there are significant challenges around ensuring the public’s trust in companies and organisations, like Camden Council, that collect, hold and use people’s personal information.

Therefore, to ensure that we can demonstrate how Camden engages with data in a spirit of openness and transparency, we undertook a comprehensive and open process with our residents to develop a Data Charter. This provides us with a framework and set of principles to guide our approach to collecting, processing and sharing the data we hold above and beyond the legal basis set out in law.

Councillor Richard Olszewski, Cabinet Member for Finance and Transformation

The development of the Charter didn’t happen in darkened rooms, hidden in the Council buildings. Instead, the Council, supported by The Alan Turing Institute  (the Turing) and Involve, handed responsibility for drafting the Charter to residents.

The Charter was drafted by a Jury-style Citizens Data Charter Panel informed by wider community engagement over the course of the preceding 12 months. This blog post explores how this all fitted together.

The Data Charter Panel, designed and lead facilitated by Involve, was formed of 19 residents, who met across three Saturdays during September and October 2021 in order to: better understand residents’ views about the use of data by Camden Council; and build consensus on the role and substantive content of a Data Charter.

Over the course of the first half of the panel, participants (supported by the Turing) had the chance to hear from and question experts about the use of data and data ethics. As they engaged with the evidence, panellists developed a shared picture about the benefits, risks and harms they were most interested in building into the Charter.

Over the second half of the panel, they worked in small groups and as a whole panel developed these into the seven principles and vision which make-up the Charter.

Camden wanted to ensure that a diverse range of perspectives fed into the deliberations of the Residents’ Panel as it developed the Charter, because the use of data by public authorities affects different communities in different ways. Communities’ diversity of experiences of government and service delivery affects their perspectives about how data is collected, shared, analysed and used. These perspectives influence their hopes and fears about data use in the future.

Camden has set an important precedent for how residents and councils can and should collaborate to ensure data works for the public good. There are many positive ways that algorithms and data-driven technologies can support human decision-making within local government. But they often presuppose that consensus has been built around key ethical and social values, such as ‘fairness’ or ‘respect for privacy’.

Camden’s Data Charter does not take such foundational values for granted. Rather, it is built on an ongoing process of open and accessible dialogue, which is inclusive to diverse communities and voices. Our next step at The Alan Turing Institute is to use this example to support more councils use data in an ethical, responsible, and trustworthy manner.”

Dr Christopher Burr, Ethics Fellow at The Alan Turing Institute

We worked with Camden, co-funded by the Wellcome Trust to pilot a distributed dialogue approach to working with diverse perspectives within the borough. This methodology aims to engage with community groups across the borough, in spaces they normally meet in. Using a range of case studies, it supports short-form deliberations on whether and how data should be used in different circumstances.

Like everything else in the past two years, COVID significantly changed our plans (the first groups were due to meet as we went into the first lockdown in 2020…) As a result, the small number of Zoom sessions we were able to organise were augmented by a set of 42 resident interviews to ensure that the Data Charter Panellists heard from a diversity of views across Camden.

Camden is committed to the Charter being a living document, and panellists saw it that way too. One area of emphasis in their discussions and the final document was governance and accountability. Camden Council has committed to hosting an annual independent panel made-up of residents, experts and councillors to examine how the council has used residents’ data over the course of the previous year.

In addition, we will continue to develop the distributed dialogue methodology, COVID willing, to support community groups to engage with and critique the Charter, and to use it to explore potential data uses. The aim of this will be to make Camden residents more aware of the Charter and of how it will influence the choices the Council makes about data. It will also support the Council to hear a diversity of community views about the use of data in order to inform their understanding of what residents think is acceptable, and what is not.

We look forward to reporting on the implementation of the Charter, and the impact that Camden residents are having over the course of 2022.

Photo taken and edited by Gary Austin, Circle Indigo