The consequences of OKCupid's test

1 August 2014

Richard Armstrong, Northgate Public Services

First Facebook tried to influence people’s mood and now OKCupid has attempted to change fate, telling individuals they were a great match with a fellow dater when in fact they were highly unlikely to get along.

Misuse of data perhaps? Individuals have trusted both these sites with their personal data and in OKCupid’s case, this trust has been breached in some respects. The individuals concerned had every expectation that their personal data would be matched to the most appropriate fellow dater.

In the public sector we often collect, join and share data about people. For the most part, we do this in order to provide better citizen services and to create a better community.

Yet often, the citizen thinks that local agencies or the information suppliers that hold their data are up to no good.

If we are to have a hope of shifting from treatment to multi-agency prevention across all areas of public service we need people’s trust. We must start with explaining how and why we hold personal information and be equally clear on the benefits and risks. Informed consent is key.

There’s a useful blueprint in the National Joint Registry. The largest health registry of its kind in the world, the NJR holds data on every hip, knee, ankle, elbow and shoulder replacement operation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It allows outcomes from joint replacement surgery to be monitored, including the performance of hospitals, surgeons and implants, in order to improve patient safety. 

The NJR works best when it holds detailed person-specific data because it provides a clear picture of what works best in different groups of people. Reports created from these data are provided to hospitals, surgeons, patients and medical device manufacturers, but it has not been built up by stealth. Each patient is informed that they have a choice whether to add their personal information to the NJR and yet consent rates are right up at 95%.

This is because the benefits of collecting the information are clearly explained. That the consent of hundreds of thousands of patients like them means that surgeons know what works best; medical devices can be continually improved; patients can make informed choices; and individuals can be contacted quickly if there is a problem.  

In 2010, the NJR helped identify a failing brand of hip replacement which was subsequently recalled. In the midst of high profile media coverage it played a vital role in allowing hospitals to make contact with affected patients and taking calls from individuals wishing to check exactly what implant they had. Without the NJR, it would have taken longer to identify the problem at all and the public health implications are enormous.

More than ever, organisations delivering public services need to use the information they hold in better ways and to share it with far more organisations. But if people lose trust in our ability to do it properly, and don’t feel they have given their informed consent, we will run into a big problem in the longer term. I’m not sure OKCupid was thinking about the bigger picture.