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Do we, as a society, benefit enough from our data?

For 40 years, Statistics Denmark has made data available to society in a secure way. The return is high and diverse when data is used for research, analysis and as the backdrop to important decisions in society. But should we – as a society – be satisfied with the present opportunities when the benefits could be even greater?

9 June 2023 8:00

Today, it is registered when you see a doctor and buy medicine at the pharmacy. It is reported when you get paid, who pays it and which car you drive. You are part of the statistics when you go to the cinema and when you play badminton in your spare time. Data is also collected when you rent a holiday home, when you shop online, and when you use electricity, water and heating.

Data is playing an ever greater role in all respects, and data is generated and collected in constantly new fields. The digitisation from end to end of all sorts of things generate data about all Danes every day – as citizens, as users (of public service), as businesses and as customers.

The chief question in a data-driven world is then what is going to happen with all the data that is generated?  Who should be able to access it, for what, and how should the access to data be granted now and in the future?

A key element of democracy

Perhaps you worry what the vast amount of data can be used for.  That’s understandable. Therefore, it is important that your data and society’s data is treated with the necessary confidentiality in a secure environment that does not allow the individual citizen or business to be identified. Safeguarding this is one of our core competences.

Statistics Denmark is a child of democracy and was established as an independent statistical agency in 1850 – the year after Denmark’s democratic constitution was passed. Then as now, reliable official statistics are a key element of a democratic Denmark. Statistics Denmark complies with the common European rules on, e.g., professional independence, impartiality, confidentiality, reliability and accessibility. As a citizen, you can rest assured that data about you will not fall into the wrong hands, once it is behind our safety barriers.

Over the past 40 years, we have made public data available to Danish society – especially for research and analysis, so that the immense knowledge that lies in data can benefit society. We have access to all public registers thus ensuring that there is public and democratic access through us to the information that public authorities collect as part of our welfare society.

Denmark’s Data Portal

Statistics Denmark has a dual responsibility, which we take very seriously. On the one hand, we are obliged to take good care of data – on the other hand, we have a duty to share it, so that it may create value. We have come up with good solutions to this dilemma.

In 2022, we took the first step towards what we call Denmark’s Data Portal. The portal will make it even easier for researchers and analysts to use our data, and in the future, it will be possible to provide access to more data than that which is part of our current statistical production. Obviously, in a way that maintains data confidentiality.

The benefit to society is manifold: Stronger research, better policy development, evidence-based practices, greater knowledge and better decision-making at all levels of society. The more data we include, the greater the potential benefit to society.

More data on society should benefit the community

There is also an increasing amount of privately held data. Data created by private businesses as part of their efforts to service and understand their users and customers even better. The businesses register when products are scanned at the supermarket, and the banks know where and when we use our credit cards. It is also registered when we use our travel cards or drive through the tollbooth at the Great Belt Bridge or the Oresund Bridge. And much, much more. All of it data that can also be used – if handled securely – for statistics and analysis to the benefit of all of us, and not just to the advantage of the businesses and organisations collecting it.

Shortly before the pandemic, Statistics Denmark was granted access to electricity meter data from Energinet, which is an independent public company running Denmark’s energy infrastructure. Access to this data enabled us to conclude, for instance, that there were no signs of any significant decline in the level of activity in Danish industry in spite of the pandemic. An important and reassuring piece of information that we would not have been able to provide that quickly without the electricity meter data. And a very good example of how Statistics Denmark’s access to data from private suppliers benefits society and our common knowledge.

We believe that all kinds of data created in Danish society about Danish society and citizens of Danish society should benefit society – and we are happy to be of service in that context.

Common access

In international statistical circles, there is currently talk of the need to establish national data stewards. It is necessary to ensure common access to using society’s data – both public and private – for the common good. This is a role that Statistics Denmark has held and developed over many years when it comes to data from the public sector. At the moment, we are developing this role further with Denmark’s Data Portal.

However, there is huge potential for creating further value for society, a value that will grow as the Data Portal gradually includes more data. Not just data from the public sector, but also data created in the private sector that can safely be made available to society based on the virtues and obligations that rest with us as the official national statistical authority.

Our imagination is the only limit to the potential gain to society.