Generating transparency where none exists: just how are data analytics used in children’s services?

By Val Gillies, Ros Edwards and Sarah Gorin 

The Government’s public consultation on changes to the data protection framework emphasise the importance of public trust and transparency. But when, as part of our research, we tried to establish basic facts about the extent to which local authorities are linking and analysing data on children and families, we hit a brick wall.

Our research is aiming to provide a clearer picture of what parents think about the ways information about them and their children may be linked together and used by local councils. An important part of this work has been speaking directly to parents to see how much support for and trust in this type of activity there is. Alongside these valuable and enlightening conversations, we have also been trying to map the state of play among British local authorities and to find out exactly which authorities are doing what when it comes to operational data linking and matching and the application of predictive analytics to families’ data. 

The Government’s declared commitment is to roll out a ‘world class nationwide digital infrastructure and  ‘unlock the power of data’, but there is currently no central record available of which authorities are doing what. 

Freedom of information requests

To try to find out, we submitted Freedom of Information requests to 220 UK Local Authorities in the UK.  The 149 English councils participating in the ‘Troubled Families Programme’ (now called the Supporting Families Programme) must, by necessity link and analyse datasets to ‘identify’ ‘troubled’ households and claim payment-by-results from central government. Yet only 76 responded that they used data analytics. The remainder claimed that their systems did not meet our definition or responded with a straight ‘no’ to all our questions about their use. 

English councils claiming to be outside our criteria responded in a vague and evasive way. For example, some responded ‘no’ when asked about their engagement with data analytics either by positioning family work as separate from children’s services or by using the term ‘data matching’ instead. Further investigation established that many of these councils do in fact use systems with predictive analytic capacity. 

For example, Achieving for Children, a social enterprise providing services for children in several local authorities, responded to our FoI that beyond ‘some basic data monitoring….we do not currently use nor have we previously used any data analytics, predictive analytics and or artificial intelligence systems to assist with this work’. Yet they have used business intelligence technologies on a range of projects using predictive analytics/algorithms, as noted on the UK Authority Digital Data and Technology for the Public Good website.

Side-stepping terms

Our FoI research also showed that Councils side-stepped the term algorithm and the concept of AI. Even where they engaged in predictive analytics they denied they were using algorithms – it’s hard to envisage one without the other given the tools they were employing. 

We received a lot of incomplete and insufficient information and information that was irrelevant. A number of councils claimed exemption from the FoI on cost grounds or commercial confidentiality. Where we followed up with more carefully worded requests, we received ambiguously worded replies. 

Some local authorities were more forthcoming and open, listing various tools and companies used to conduct their data analytics.  Microsoft Business Intelligence the most common tool cited. Dorset County Council has a case study on the Local Government Association website of how the tool can be used to ‘ enable local professionals to identify potential difficulties for individual children before they become serious problems’. Our FoI established the council plans to make greater use of AI in the future. 

Our analysis of the responses we received and the information we have sourced from elsewhere, points to a clear shift in service priorities away from early intervention for parental education towards child protection and crime prevention. Earlier focus on linking parenting skills to social mobility is now muted, with rationales for data innovation focusing almost exclusively on the pre-emption of problems rather than on the maximisation of children’s future potential. 

Our findings around children’s services have been reinforced by work by Big Brother Watch which has published a detailed analysis of the use of hidden algorithms by councils who use trackers to identify disadvantaged households in order to target them for interventions. The organisation found one of the biggest players in this area, Xantura, to be particularly secretive. 

Public trust 

A wide range of data ‘solutions’ are drawn on by local authorities to classify, flag, target and intervene in disadvantaged families and their children. Yet parents are not generally informed of how their information is being used and for what purpose. As we have shown it is difficult even for us as researchers to establish.

From our work here, it is hard to see how public trust and transparency will be achieved from the opaque, ambiguous and even evasive base that our FoI request endeavours revealed. 

Freedom of Information Requests on the Use of Data Analytics in Childrens Services: Generating Transparency is research by Val Gillies and Bea Gardner, with Ros Edwards and Sarah Gorin. 

Would you like to take part in our research?

We are looking for parents to take part in the project. We want to know your views and experiences of the way that information about families is collected and used by policy-makers and service providers. 

There are two ways you can take part:

  1. As part of a group discussion – If you are a parent (of at least one child aged 16 or under) you can take part in an online group discussion that will last about 45 minutes.
  2. In a one-to-one discussion -If you are a parent (of at a least one child aged 16 or under) and have had contact with family support services (this may be children’s social work services, early years or a voluntary organisation that supports families) you can take part in an individual discussion with us that will last about 45 minutes, either online or by phone.

All group and individual participants will receive a £25 e-voucher in thanks for their time and trouble, and we can provide a top-up voucher for participants using pay-as-you-go.

The research has ethical approval from the University of Southampton.

If you would like to receive further information or talk about the possibility of participating in the research, please contact Sarah Gorin, University of Southampton at s.j.gorin@soton.ac.uk

Running focus groups with parents in a Covid-19 setting – how will we do it?

In this second project blog, the research team reflect on how Covid-19 and the restrictions it has placed on all our lives, has led to methodological, ethical and practical challenges in working with focus groups on parental buy-in for linking and analysing data about families. They outline the challenges they face and how they’re adapting their approach. 

For the next stage of our project, we’re conducting focus groups to explore how particular social groups of parents understand and talk about their perspectives on data linkage and predictive analytics.  Back in early 2020, we were optimistic about the possibility of being able to conduct these groups face-to-face by the time we reached this stage of our research.  Now though, it’s clear we’ll need to move online, and we’ve been thinking about the issues we’ll face and how to deal with them.

Questions we’re grappling with include:

  • What might moving online mean for how we recruit participants? 
  • How can we best organise groups and engage parents with the project? 
  • How can we develop content for online groups that will firstly, encourage parents to contribute and enjoy the research process, and secondly, be relevant to our research endeavour?

What will moving online mean for recruiting participants?

Our intention was – and still is, to hold focus group discussions with homogenous groups of parents, to explore the consensus of views on what is and isn’t acceptable (social licence) in joining together and using parents’ administrative records.

We’re using the findings from our earlier probability-based survey of parents to identify social groups of parents whose views stand out. These include home-owning parents in professional and managerial occupations, who have stronger social licence, and mothers on low incomes, Black parents, and lone parents and parents in larger families living in rented accommodation, who tend to have weak or no social licence.

Our original plan was to recruit participants for our focus groups by contacting local community and interest groups, neighbourhood networks, services such as health centres and schools, workplaces and professional associations.  We still plan to do this, but we’re concerned that the pandemic is placing huge pressures on community groups, services for families and businesses and we may need to be prepared that helping us to identify parents to participate in research may not be a priority or, as with schools, appropriate.

So we’ve also been considering recruitment through online routes, such as advertising on relevant Facebook groups; using Twitter and putting advertisements on websites likely to be accessed by parents. It’ll be interesting to see if these general reach-outs get us anywhere.

An important aspect of recruitment to our study is how to include marginalised parents.  This can be a conundrum whether research is face-to-face or online.  Face-to-face we would have spent quite a bit of time establishing trust in person, which is not feasible now.  Finding ways to reach out and convince these parents to participate is going to be an additional challenge. Our ideas for trying to engage these parents include the use of advertising via foodbanks, neighbourhood support networks and housing organisations.

And there’s the additional problem for online methods, revealed in inequalities of online schooling, of parents who have limited or no online access. Further, Covid-19 is affecting parents living in poverty especially and we don’t want to add to any stress they’re likely to be under.

Enticing affluent parents working in professional and managerial occupations to participate may also be difficult under the current circumstances.  They may be juggling full-time jobs and (currently) home schooling and feeling under pressure.  Either way, marginalised or affluent, we think we’ll need to be flexible, offering group times in evenings and at weekends for example. 

How should we change the way we organise groups and engage parents with the project? 

We know from reading the literature that online groups can face higher drop-out rates than face-to-face.  Will the pandemic and its potential effect on parent’s’ physical and mental health mean that we face even higher drop-out rates?  One strategy we hope will help is establishing personal links, through contacting participants and chatting to them informally before the focus group takes place.

We’ve been mulling over using groups containing people who know each other, for example if they’re members of a community group or accessed through a workplace, and groups that bring together participants who are unknown to each other.  Because we’re feeling a bit unsure about recruitment and organisation, we’ve decided to go down both routes as and when opportunities present themselves.  We’ll need to be aware of this as an issue when we come to do the analysis though.

We’re also thinking to organise more groups and have fewer participants in each group than we would have done face-to-face (after all, we’re not going to be confined by our original travel and venue hire budget).  Even in our online research team meetings we can cut across and interrupt each other, and discussion doesn’t flow in quite the same way.  Reading  participants’ body language and non-verbal cues in an online focus group is going to be more difficult.  Smaller numbers in the group may help a bit, but it can still be difficult to see everyone if, for example, someone is using a mobile phone.  We’ll just have to see how this goes and how best to handle it.

There’s also a dilemma about how many of the project team to involve in the focus groups. We’ll need to have a team member to facilitate the group, but previous research shows it might be useful to have at least one other to monitor the chat and sort out any technical issues. But with a group as small as 4-6 participants will that seem off putting for parents? It’s all hard to know so may be a case of trying it in order to find out!

What should we consider in developing content that’s engaging for parents and relevant to our research?

What we’ll miss by holding our group discussions online is the settling in and chatting and putting us and our participants at ease – how are you, would you like a drink, there’s some biscuits if you want, let me introduce you to … and so on.  We don’t think that we can replicate this easily.  

But we’ve been pondering our opening icebreaker – should we ask something like….

‘If you could be anywhere else in the world where would you be?’

or

‘What would be the one thing you’d pack in a lockdown survival kit?’ 

And we’re also planning to use a couple of initial questions that use the online poll function.  Here’s an instance where we think there’s an advantage over in-person groups, because participants can vote in the poll anonymously. 

After that, we’ll be attempting to open up the discussion to focus on the issues that are at the heart of our research – what our participants feel is acceptable and what’s not in various scenarios about the uses of data linkage and predictive analytics.

Ensuring the well-being of parents after focus groups is always important, but with online groups may be harder if the participants are not identified through community groups in which there’s already access to support. We plan to contact people after groups via email but it’s hard to know if parents would let us know even if groups presented issues for them. We have also given some thought to whether we could use online noticeboards for participants to post any further comments they may have about social licence after they’ve had time to reflect, but do not know realistically if they would be used.

It’ll be interesting to see if the concerns we’ve discussed here are borne out in practice, and our hopeful means of addressing them work.  And also, what sort of challenges arise for our online focus group discussions that we haven’t thought of in advance!

If you have any ideas that might help us with our focus groups, please do get in touch with us via datalinkingproject@gmail.com

What do parents think about linking information for family interventions? What we know to date.

Our project team look at responses to a pilot survey of parents undertaken ahead of their new research.

National and local government departments and services collect and hold a range of information about parents and their children. These records include details of the taxes people pay, their medical records, school data and police files. But what do parents think about the idea of the data held on their children being linked with theirs, so that government services can identify families for possible interventions? A pilot survey leading up to a new research project indicates they’re not very keen on the idea. 

Data linkage is a hotly-debated topic with arguments about better targeted, more focused public services often counter-acted with concerns around privacy and lack of trust in the organisations collecting and using the data. 

When it comes to the use of linked data to identify families where it’s thought there may be heightened risk of things such as child abuse or neglect, or truancy and anti-social behaviour, there can be few more contentious areas. But real evidence on what parents think is thin on the ground and this is where our research project hopes to make some inroads and get a better handle on things. 

Pilot survey

A voluntary pilot survey of parents carried out via the Mumsnet website and Twitter received a total of 365 responses – mostly from white mothers from relatively well-off households. We might assume, this group might feel more secure about the linkage and use of records on them and their children and that they might generally be trusting of organisations such as government departments and local councils etc. So what did we find?

Only half the parents said they had heard about data linkage and how it worked. Less than half thought it acceptable to use it to improve the planning and delivery of family support services. Far fewer (around 15 percent) thought it should be used to identify specific families who might need intervention but hadn’t asked for support or to save public money by preventing or catching family problems early. 

Their concerns included: families’ right to privacy; increasing stigma; oversimplification of risk factors; discouraging families from seeking help and problems with data accuracy and safety. About 1 in 5 did agree that the more we know about families the more the nation’s wellbeing can be improved.

Question of trust

There was little trust in organisations who might link data for the above reasons, but specific distrust of private companies with only 4 parents saying they would definitely trust them and 309 saying they wouldn’t. One participant said:

Having algorithms produced by private companies, who are not transparent, making dubious links, which do correlate with truth, is a very dangerous tool. It will not benefit society but will only benefit private companies.” 

Parents were almost entirely against government accessing financial details such as bank details, credit cards, supermarket records, CCTV and social media posts as the following comments from participants show:

More detailed and personal information, PARTICULARLY medical records/social services reports/DLA info, should not be ‘joined up’ as this breaches personal privacy.”  

“It might be acceptable to link to credit records and food shopping records on an anonymous basis to produce aggregate information or statistics for research purposes e.g. a study looking at the possible relationships between children’s diets and school attainment, or the impact of debt on parents BUT this sort of data analysis should NEVER identify individuals.”

“Government surveillance of families, without knowledge or consent, is an extremely questionable approach. Government should focus on supporting families, providing public services, creating jobs, ensuring quality of housing, eliminating poverty and increasing community capacities of resilience, care, safety, cohesion and fun.”

Lack of acceptance

So among this group of parents, where we might have expected greater levels of support for the idea of linking data for the purposes of identifying and targeting service intervention, we find in fact a substantial lack of acceptance and trust around the idea of family data linkage.  

A web-based survey of this nature gives us some indication of what people are thinking, but it’s important to try to look at this more carefully. As part of our new research project, we’re commissioning a robustly-designed and -conducted survey of around 900 parents and carrying out a range of in-depth interviews with parents in families most likely to be the target of this type of data linkage and policies associated with it.