Much of the work of The Young Foundation is about redefining the relationship between the citizen and the state. A fundamental aspect of this relationship, although it is often overlooked in the (re)design of public services and engagement with service users, is data. Today marks another step in a revolution in the way data is used which in turn may do more than anything else to transform the way all of us relate to the state. The key agent of this revolution is Mydex, a small social enterprise start-up backed by The Young Foundation. Mydex turns us all from passive data subjects into the controllers of our own personal data. Today DWP announces Mydex as one of a small number of identity assurance providers for Universal Credit. This is Mydex’s breakthrough to the big league.
What Mydex does is important but its importance is not easy to grasp so I’m going to try to set it in context.
Public bodies are increasingly seeking to give citizens or service users a greater say in the public services they receive and how they are designed. Citizens are also expected to be actively involved in everything from the running of their local schools to neighbourhood planning; from managing their long term medical condition to volunteering to help care for the elderly in their community. This is important because the nature of the social needs we face today increasingly require personalised solutions involving the recipients of services themselves and because our ageing population means we cannot afford for very much longer the welfare provision to which we have become accustomed.
When it comes to data, however, citizens are still expected to be merely data subjects, i.e. the subject matter of data held by professionals for their own interpretation and use. More and more of this data is being collected and it is getting the business world in particular very excited. For example, in McKinsey Quarterly (2011, No. 4), Brown, Chui and Manyika write: “Over time, we believe big data may well become a new type of corporate asset that will cut across business units and function much as a powerful brand does, representing a key basis for competition.”
All this data being held about us is a problem for four reasons:
(1) Data security. Data held by companies or public institutions has a habit of leaking out. Brief cases get left on trains; websites get hacked; data gets sold to fraudsters or journalists. Suddenly your medical history is common knowledge, your bank account has been drained, your home address is on the web.
(2) Data sharing. This is the inverse problem to data security and is suffered particularly by the public sector. It is the data aspect of a lack of joined up government. The NHS spent a fortune on trying, and failing, to create an electronic patient record system. Because of this failure patients often find themselves physically carrying their medical notes between consultations with different clinicians or repeating their medical history and symptoms afresh each time.
(3) Data silos. Often, the real power of data comes when data from different kinds of sources are combined. Tyze is a Young Foundation supported social venture that creates a personal social network around a person in need of care. This network can combine professionals supporting that person with their informal care network of family, friends and neighbours. With the permission of the care receiver, professionals can provide information about their medication, agreed exercise regime and other needs. Informal carers can tell professionals about compliance issues and other practical issues that arise. Everyone benefits because each person only has a partial perspective on the problem until they join up.
(4) Data accuracy. Institutions that hold large data sets spend considerable sums on trying to keep them up to date, and the more data you hold the harder it is to do that. For example, people move house and forget to tell everyone who has their address.
Mydex is a community interest company that makes all these problems easier to address by turning the citizen from passive data subject into the person who holds and manages the use of their own data. It is a bit like flipping a world where companies engage in ‘customer relationship management’ into one in which individuals engage in ‘vendor relationship management’. Now the citizen is in charge.
Mydex cannot itself see the personal data which its service helps individuals manage, and (unlike almost every other online service existing today) does not seek any value or beneficial use from its customers’ personal data. Instead it puts state of the art encryption and access controls at the disposal of individuals for free, so they can if they wish conveniently share the data they need to get things done. This includes sharing third party validated proofs of the claims they acquire and make (eg evidence of bank account, passport or driving licence).
If I hold on to my personal information it is less likely to get into the wrong hands. The one thing that holds constant as I meet with various professional in the public sector is, of course, me myself. So it makes sense for me to hold my own data store rather than relying on public bodies or professional to pass data between them as I travel between consultations (and we could have avoided wasting billions on NHS electronic patient records). This is even more the case when it comes to combining the formal with the informal, since only I (I hope) know who my friends, family and neighbours are.This even makes sense in terms of data accuracy. The person best placed to keep my personal records up to date is me. I can change one field (home address) in my datastore and this will automatically inform every organisation I interact with and have given permission to receive this information.
The Young Foundation has supported Mydex from its inception and we are proud to have been the first investor beyond Mydex’s own management team. Mydex is a key part of a new citizen friendly data architecture that we hope to see realised. At times during Mydex’s development, it has seemed more like a campaign than an enterprise, embodying as it does a radical vision of the future. Today DWP helped Mydex take a step closer to realising that future.
Disclosure: The Young Foundation is a shareholder in Mydex.