Many housing providers have access to sources of ‘big data’ which can hold significant value, if properly used. However, while there is value in exploiting this data, a housing provider must also balance this with its obligations to its users under data protection legislation.
What is big data?
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) defines big data as, “high volume, high velocity and high variety information assets that demand cost-effective, innovative forms of information processing for enhanced insight and decision making.” In effect, this means large amounts of varied information that an organisation can gain access to and process very quickly. This is broken down into three aspects:
- Volume – the quantity of data;
- Velocity – the speed at which the data is processed; and
- Variety – the range of [structured and unstructured] data held.
How is big data valuable?
A lot can be learned from big data in a relatively short space of time, which is one reason why it’s so valuable. Analysis could reveal details such as where improvements can be made, how to manage risk and opportunities to improve welfare as well as identifying broader consumer trends.
A good example of leveraging big data to enhance the user experience is the use of ‘desire paths’ in urban planning. By allowing commuters to identify short-cuts, you can pave routes that follow paths of least resistance, saving both design and maintenance costs. At the same time, vacancies and waiting lists can inform housing developers about the local demand for two, three or more bedroom homes.
Housing providers hold and have access to unique data sets, where tenants are brought together by geography, community and other characteristics. These records can reveal valuable insights that can be unlocked through careful evaluation and research. While this information is undoubtedly valuable to the housing provider, third parties could also benefit from gaining access to this data and they would be willing to pay for the privilege.
Creating income from big data
Analysing your big data is likely to result in the production of original reports, commercial insights, computer code, algorithms and written findings that can be protected by copyright and exploited through licences. The results may lead to inventions that can be protected through patents and enable you to commercialise a new product.
Your big data, as a distinct data set, may also benefit from copyright protection and/or database rights which can be shared, loaned or sold to third parties. There is an opportunity to agree the terms on which external organisations can analyse your big data and exploit or share their insights with you and with others.
Ownership of such intellectual property rights does not necessarily give housing providers unfettered rights to exploit their big data and they will still be expected to comply with data protection legislation.
Remaining compliant with data protection legislation
When looking to assess and harness the value of big data, a housing provider must identify whether it constitutes or contains personal data. To the extent that big data relates to identifiable, living people, the housing provider must identify a lawful basis before the data is collected, used or shared, for any purpose; with enhanced protections applying to ‘special category’ data.
In respect of existing records, housing providers will need to take all reasonable steps to ensure their proposed new use of the big data is not incompatible with its original purpose. Helpfully, data legislation explains that further processing for archiving purposes in the public interest, scientific or historical research or statistical purposes isn’t considered to be incompatible with the initial purposes for which that data was collected. Nevertheless, the big data should still be minimised (including pseudonymised where possible), accurate, stored only for a limited time, kept secure, and the change of use should be communicated to the data subjects.
The safest and most risk-free way to process big data is to make it anonymous, so that it no longer falls within the scope of data protection legislation. One of the clear benefits in using pseudonymised or aggregated data is that the results are only ever made available on a de-personalised or de-identified basis. A suitably-drafted data privacy impact assessment can help to identify these and other measures which minimise risk and record your compliance with the law applicable to big data.
What are the risks of getting it wrong?
While big data can be effectively used in a profitable way, appropriate due diligence and sufficient safeguarding measures should be put in place to safeguard the individuals before carrying out large-scale processing or sharing their information with third parties.
As a data controller, housing providers can risk hefty fines from the ICO, instructions from the ICO to change or end the processing in question and claims for compensation from the individuals whose data has been processed.
At the same time, housing providers are in a trusted position of authority, where fairness and transparency are key to maintaining a successful relationship with tenants. Aside from the risk of security and privacy issues, the processing of big data can cause unintended harm to people in their role as citizens and consumers by creating bias, embedding systemic errors, creating reliance on misinterpreted data and enabling poor decision-making.
Housing providers need to remember their duties under data protection legislation and that the security and integrity of the data will always take priority over any transaction. Providers should seek expert advice when considering data sharing or selling to ensure they have the legal justification and clear roadmap which enables them to unlock the value of big data successfully.
Emma Watt is an associate solicitor and Rumandeep Dhariwal is a solicitor at Anthony Collins Solicitors.