Big data: Transparent citizens demand transparent data collectors

A new, large-scale study shows that many citizens are quite willing to share their data. However, they set a number of conditions.

The Vodafone Institute for Society and Communications interviewed more than 8,000 people in Germany, France, Great Britain, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and the Czech Republic in August and September of 2015. The result is an extensive public opinion survey from which valuable conclusions can be drawn about the conditions under which people are willing to make their data available to others. Companies that comply with these criteria when working on big data projects can expect a much better response rate and higher data volume.

Scepticism prevails in Europe

It is evident throughout the study that most Europeans are rather sceptical when it comes to the collection and analysis of their data as part of big data analysis. One of the main reasons is that they see no personal benefits. More than half of respondents said that for them the disadvantages of data disclosure outweigh any advantages, with even 62% of Germans responding in this sense.

The study entitled “Big Data – When People are Willing to Share their Data” also revealed the low public confidence in companies and government institutions when it comes to data usage. Only about a quarter of respondents felt that companies deal responsibly with their data. And only 20% said that they knew where and by whom their data is collected and stored.

Significant differences between countries

These results already show clear indications of how companies must proceed if they want to use personal data. They need to put the priority on building trust and communicating the benefits of analysing such data. This is especially important – as the study also shows – when communicating with older people and people with a low level of education. These two groups were particularly likely to indicate their feeling of not being sufficiently informed about the use of their data. In contrast, although respondents up to the age of 49 years are more willing to share their data with others, they nevertheless want to be involved in defining their privacy settings.

Considerable differences are also evident when the results from the different countries are compared. The Italians and Spaniards surveyed were thus hardly concerned about the use of their personal data. Although the British, Irish and Dutch are somewhat more sceptical, they tend to have a positive attitude toward the analysis of personal data. The greatest distrust is manifest in Germany, where a majority of citizens is quite concerned about data protection not being ensured and privacy being violated as part of big data analysis.

How companies can build trust

But what concrete measures are suitable for gaining public confidence? The study also provides an answer to this question:

A company’s terms and conditions are especially important. Respondents expect clear and simple language and short and understandable texts.
They also placed importance on high transparency in data collection and use. They wanted to know what kind of data was collected from them and how it is used.
Thirdly, interviewees explained that they have more confidence in companies that refrain from using small print in their information and agreements.

Further requests expressed by respondents relate to the possibility of changing the privacy settings later on as well as integrating a feature that would allow for public feedback. A third of respondents also indicated that their confidence in a company is greater if it is a well-known brand.

The purpose determines approval

Another interesting finding is that respondents are more willing to share their data if the analysis benefits the public at large. About two thirds thus indicated that they would agree to an anonymous collection of their data if doing so would improve the discovery and treatment of diseases. Even if such data was not collected anonymously, more than half of respondents would still agree to having it collected. About two thirds would also allow smart meters to analyse their energy use, if this benefited the environment. And more than half of the respondents said that they would consent to having their movement data collected and analysed by navigation devices, if it would be used to improve the quality of traffic information.

Further details are available on the Vodafone Institute for Society and Communication website ; an abridged German version of the study and an interactive online module is available there. You will also find the original English version there.