Spotlight: Sharing data during Covid-19

In our latest Spotlight, Phillipa Nazari, Assistant Director – Information Governance & Data Protection Officer, Greater Manchester Combined Authority & Transport for Greater Manchester, explains why developing new guidance around sharing data has been a vital part of Greater Manchester’s Covid-19 response.

Data and information are vital resources

Enabling a rapid and effective response across a city region to deal with a pandemic of the scale and nature of Covid-19 requires quick decisions to be made about how to support the most vulnerable in society. At Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), we recognised immediately that this would mean more organisations sharing more vital information and data about people.

Services such as foodbank deliveries, welfare calls, contact tracing and the creation of community hubs all rely on the safe and effective sharing of personal data to support people in need. Frontline staff have been sharing, re-using and analysing all types of information and data at a local level – and this is becoming increasingly prevalent at a city-region level.

In addition, the surge in digital ways of working has transformed the public sector at a rate we haven’t seen before in Greater Manchester: from mass employee homeworking, to online GP and hospital appointments, to apps being developed to support local volunteers (such as Bury Council in collaboration with the Greater Manchester Digital Platform, which my team made sure took a ‘privacy by design approach’ from the outset).


Banner thanking key workers in Manchester
Credit: Dunk. Source: Flikr.

The challenges to getting data sharing right

I often find that Data Protection legislation is perceived as a barrier to collaboration. There’s still a lot of confusion around sharing information and data. This was true pre-Covid but in a rapidly evolving pandemic response, and as we move towards recovery, this confusion can be particularly counterproductive.

The response itself has brought additional challenges to sharing data and data protection. Greater Manchester, like so many other places across the country, has seen local authority staff change roles, the majority of teams working from home and a steep increase in the region’s reliance on charities, volunteers and social enterprises.

This meant that lots of organisations, particularly those in the third sector, were working in ways that were not subject to usual governance arrangements. And a lack of data standards, concerns around accuracy and shortcomings in government departments all pose challenges for getting data sharing right.

A lot of work needed to be done to understand the lists of vulnerable residents and those who were shielding, so that we could match these lists with local data sets and make sure those most in need received the support they were entitled to.

A robust approach to privacy

Rapid digital developments designed to support the most vulnerable, particularly the collection and sharing of large amounts of health data, raises important questions about human rights and privacy – not just for Greater Manchester but for the UK as a whole.

We need to make sure that information and data can be processed legally, ethically and safely to meet data protection obligations and protect the rights and freedoms of individuals. We also have to build trust with the public and directly tackle the inequalities that Covid-19 has undoubtedly highlighted.

That’s why I’m passionate about a robust approach to privacy being central to data sharing – both during the pandemic, and to support our recovery from it.

Phone showing contact tracing app
Contact tracing relies on the safe and effective sharing of personal data. Credit: markus119. Source: Flikr.

Developing new guidance around sharing data

In a very early Covid-19 committee Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, acknowledged that sharing data was vital to the pandemic response. He called for new data sharing guidance for organisations across the region.

The aims were to provide clarity and assurance, and build both confidence and accountability, so that frontline staff across Greater Manchester could be empowered to make critical decisions about operational delivery at record speeds – and then implement them just as fast.

I took this on, pulling together the existing guidance on data sharing for local authorities, health and care organisations, fire, rescue and policing teams, transport services, electoral offices and the charity, voluntary and social enterprise sector. I made sure that our new guidance covered the importance of informed, legal, ethical, secure and accountable decision-making.

I knew that developing a shared understanding of the complex legislation that determines how information and data is used would be vital – both for safe and effective service delivery, and collaboration across the public, private and voluntary sectors.

Equally important was building in transparency and drafting updates for organisations’ privacy notices. We’ll only secure people’s trust if they’re able to see what we’re doing with their information and if we have an evidence base that shows how we’re applying an ethical approach.

My team at the GMCA engaged with local Information Governance and Data Protection experts from all the relevant sectors across the city region to support the Strategic Coordination Group’s work for Greater Manchester. As a result, the guidance has been received positively across all sectors – and is a great example of the value that the GMCA can bring by working collaboratively, rapidly developing the guidance to benefit the whole region.

Rainbow stuck to gates of garden
Rusholme, Manchester. Credit: Donald Judge. Source: Flikr.

Moving towards recovery

Our guidance could be adopted by any locality, city region or public-sector organisation. It’s now on its eighth iteration and will continue to evolve as Greater Manchester’s Covid-19 response changes.

As we move into recovery, our ambition is to adopt an Information Strategy for Greater Manchester. The strategy will make sure we’re valuing our information and data by managing it better, investing in the right skills and working towards an informed system that is empowered to share data and information – and to be prepared for rapid response.

Leading GMCA’s work on getting this data sharing right means I’ve had to have difficult conversations about how things are currently being done – and challenge the status quo. But without this, organisations risk jeopardising the data and information of those who are already in difficult and vulnerable circumstances. This could exacerbate their distress and, potentially, cause harm.

We don’t want to get data sharing right because we can, but because it’s the right thing to do.

For any questions about the guidance or the developing information strategy for Greater Manchester, get in touch with Phillipa Nazari at the GMCA & Transport for Greater Manchester.

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