Guest blog: Enabling older people to flourish in the new age of data driven technologies

Photo credit: Elif Ayiter, Flickr creative Commons

This blog post was contributed by Barbara Limon, Interim Head of Public Policy at the British Academy

Barely a day goes by without a news story about the robots taking over or discussion around the influence firms like Facebook and Google now wield. We have reached a critical moment in the development of data science and data-enabled technologies.

These technologies offer huge potential to improve the lives of older people.  Driverless cars could offer more freedom if you are no longer able to drive and your fridge could automatically order more food for you – delivered straight to your front door.  It has also been suggested that robots could enable older people to work for longer.

Technology can provide cognitive assistance to those with dementia and robotic hoists and other aids could enable more older people to live independently in their own homes for longer. But alongside these developments has come an explosion in the amount of data that is collected – it has been estimated that 90% of the world’s data has been created in the last five years.  At the same time the growth in the power of analytics, means that new and previously unforeseen uses of data become possible and even routine.

This is something that affects all older people – even those not currently online.  The roll out of smart meters means that data will be accumulating in all our homes, data that will indicate when and for how long you shower and when your heating goes on and off.  Whilst revealing this sort of information about our everyday lives may feel undesirable in terms of guarding our own privacy, it also means that services can be targeted more accurately to older people who may not be heating their homes adequately in winter.  How do you resolve these tensions?

It was just these sort of dilemmas and governance challenges that the British Academy and the Royal Society have been looking at over the past year and our final report Data management and use: Governance for the 21st Century, was published in June. We looked at a wide range of scenarios and areas where data is used in diverse ways and for a range of purposes. Common issues emerged, that go beyond well-examined questions of privacy and security of data.  Common governance concepts such as consent and ownership of data are being increasingly challenged by the rapid reuse and repurposing of data.

We concluded that whilst current governance structures provide a lot of what is needed for today there are clear gaps between today’s framework and what is needed to meet the future challenges of data governance in the 21st century.

In response to this we developed a set of high-level principles for the management of data and its use – the overarching principle being that systems that govern data need to promote human flourishing. This principle is intended to ensure that at moments of contention, the fundamental tenet should be that society does not serve data – data should be used to serve human communities.

The report also identified a clear need for a new body to steward the data governance landscape as a whole.


Author: Age UK

Age UK is dedicated to helping everyone make the most of later life. In the UK we help more than 7 million older people each year by providing advice, combating loneliness and enabling independence. Locally, we work as part of a network of independent charities which includes Age UK, Age Cymru, Age NI and Age Scotland and over 150 local Age UK partners in England and Wales.

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