NO2ID have recently picked up on a worrying new strategic data sharing initiative in Greater Manchester. It is called GM-Connect and it was initiated in January 2016, but we have only become aware of it recently because there hasn’t been much publicity about it. Official information is limited to a press release and a report summarising the aims of the GM-Connect project.
The aim of GM-Connect is to allow the sharing of the personal data of residents across Greater Manchester, with a longer-term aim to create a ‘common residents index’ of everyone living in Greater Manchester. Although the report focuses on the use of GM-Connect in improving social and health care, the ultimate intention is clearly that access to many other public services will be covered.
GM-Connect will not actually store the data but will use a federated data sharing model (Essentially a series of separate databases which can be accessed via a single front end. Such systems typically also includes search and data management capability so that the databases can be searched and analysed as though they were a single database). It will create a virtual dashboard of a Mancunian citizen’s life and provide central point for monitoring of interactions with public services. In this respect it is very similar to the way the database behind Tony Blair’s Identity Card scheme would have worked, or indeed the proposed Scottish Identity database being promoted by the Scottish National Party. These quotes from the report (page 4, paragraph 2) gives a flavour of what GM-Connect is designed to do:
‘….. Workers will be able to run reports to establish trends, identify previously undetected patterns, map relationships, and test scenarios in the context of the individual, family and/or place …..’
GM-Connect will not just be a passive search tool where information is accessed when required, it will also proactively track what is happening in a citizen’s life:
‘……Workers will be automatically notified of important life events and changes in residents’ circumstances when they occur e.g. a young person moving to adulthood, or a person moving from shelter to homelessness….’
Needless to say there is virtually no mention in the report about issues of privacy, or allowing residents to opt out of data sharing. Indeed the report does not go into any depth with regards to the legal basis for the scheme, or legal protections on data usage. It is worth noting that significant concerns have been raised by privacy campaigners with the Scottish Identity database around the surveillance capabilities it will give the Scottish government. Although GM-Connect is not (based on current information) as comprehensive as the Scottish scheme, it still has the potential to provide council workers and other public bodies with intrusive access to the activities and lives of Greater Manchester’s residents. The other big danger with this type of scheme is of course the potential for mission creep.
At the moment GM-Connect is still in its early stages with £500k of funding being sought to for initial set-up costs. A detailed business case and funding strategy will be put together to identify costs from April 2017 onwards.
A personal comment from the Newsblog Editor:
Interestingly, the report gives an example of the family of a man who had a hip operation and had to repeat his story to ten different agencies when trying to arrange the man’s support and aftercare. It is claimed that GM-Connect and the data sharing it will enable will fix this sort of problem. However, anybody who has had dealings with Councils and Public Sector bodies (such as this blog’s author) will know that a core problem that prevents effective delivery of public services is getting local councillors, council departments and public sector bodies to take any sort of ownership and/or responsibility for activities or work, even when it is part of their remit.
In the case described above the problem the family had sounds much more like a problem with no department wanting to take responsibility (even if it is only establishing which department is responsible), rather than one of information availability. Thus, even if we accepted that GM-Connect is a good thing and had no privacy issues, it is difficult to see how it would improve public services. Although, of course it is easy to see the appeal to politicians of an apparently simple database solution to address failures in public service delivery, versus the difficulty of fixing underlying management and performance issues.