WRITTEN ON August 5th, 2010 BY William Heath AND STORED IN Uncategorized

Tomorrow 6 Aug sees the shutting down of the ill-advised ContactPoint database.

Why was it such a dumb idea? Because you dont need a database of 12m children to focus on the relatively small number of children at real risk. Because you can’t keep the data on a huge database which is accessible to hundreds of thousands of officials secure. Because a database accessible to so many which makes clear that a vulnerable child is linked to sensitive services creates risk. Because it’s unjust to hold the records of children of mere mortals in this system but to “screen” the records of politicians and pop stars. Because consent procedures were unsatisfactory and there was no effective opt-out. Because, as the late Roger Needham used to say, “if you think technology is the solution to your complex human problem then you don’t understand technology and you dont understand your problem either.”

ContactPoint is but one of the 11 out of 46 government databases examined in the JRRT Database State report (link: pdf) which we flagged “red” . That was our shorthand for “almost certainly ilegal under human rights or data protection law: should be scrapped or substantially redesigned”. We since added NHS SCR to the “red” list.

So 6 August is a day for rejoicing, for celebrating the success on negligeable resources of wonderful campaigners notably Terri Dowty at ARCH, No2ID and FIPR. I know the officials who supported ContactPoint believed they were doing a good thing, but the “groupthink” was total and the spin deeply unattractive. Thank heavens it’s over.

Let’s cut with the negative waves. Yes, there are still plenty of databases that offend human rights and data protection laws. Yes, the deep state remains implacable. But the country is broke. There’s a mood for radical reform of public services. And central to this is Martha’s plan to get the whole country online.

It’s time to challenge the unthinking assumption that efficiency, effective public services, personalisation, security and justice can all be delivered by giant centralised databases and removing awkward barriers to data sharing. It doesn’t work in theory and it’s not working in practice.

We’ve got to build the other half of this bridge. We’ve got to bring the individual into the picture. We’ve got to let people accumulate and prove trust in online relationships. Phone users and Internet users need to be able to store, verify and share their personal data with organisations they have a relationship with. (Say it again!)

Instead of being on ContactPoint, the National Pupil Database, eCAF, the Integrated Children’s System, MIAP and the National Obesity Database (not to mention for those with the odd peccadillo to their name the profiles on YOIS, RAISE, UMIS, Asset and Onset) children need a personal portable education record they can carry through lifelong learning.

This would let them, initially with their parents’ or guardians’ help, track their own achievements and prove qualifications from formal education and other sources. They could model this against work or higher education opportunities available, and use it as the basis to apply for jobs online. Ctrl-Shift has researched this in detail for Nesta, including the business model and critical path for all affected parties. Suppliers are keen and ready to participate. The technology is there. They just need a bit of market demand to get this party started.

Despite the steady trickle of scepticism and the gargantuan human and structural inertia behind a purely organisation-centric model of personal data management I’m persuaded by the VRM/buyer-centric-commerce/customer-managed relationships view that the imminent emergence of a person-centric model promises huge savings of money for organisations and reduction in hassle for people. The interaction of a person-centric with the organisation-centric model will restore dignity, control and choice for the individual, and create immense new value from which individuals and many organisations will benefit.

There every manner of detail to be worked out: legal, technical, commercial, usability. And of course, there are spheres of life for which this will work and places it won’t.

Education records will be an easier use case than child protection. It’ll be easier to have individuals giving the NHS their admin details than their health records (but even cleaning up the admin details would deliver the NHS huge benefits) . Job-seeking is an easier use case than welfare benefit applications, and census submissions easier than border control.

But it’s high time to make a start with the easier stuff and see where we get.

Mydex CIC (the JFDI social enterprise creating a VRM platform) is doing this from September. E&OE, fingers crossed, subject to contract and if the creek don’t rise we’ll have individuals sharing verified change of (non-financial) circumstances from a personal data store under the control of the individual with up to three councils, Whitehall services and a large social network, with strong independent verification and the capability to do selective disclosure.

It’s a start. It’ll just have several relying parties out of the potential hundreds. It’ll just use a couple of dozen fields from the thousands we need to describe our lives t those we deal with in health, travel, finance, education, shopping.

But I think of it as immensely significant, like the moment we start to build the other half of the bridge.

So if you’re an entrepreneur with a VRM idea, a relying party which would welcome verified flows of change of circumstance data from individuals or an individual keen to regain control over your personal data and to start to realise its real value drop me a line or register interest at Mydex. (Note: Mydex has never to date ever yet contacted anyone who has signed up in this way, but will when it has something substantial to say. This may be soon.)

And if you’re an organisation that needs to work out what all this means for you, or need professional evidence and advice to make some smart strategic decisions pronto, call in Ctrl-Shift. (Disclaimer: I work for both Ctrl-Shift and Mydex. IdealGov is my hobby, a sideline which persists from a previous job.)

5 Responses to “ContactPoint, the broader Databankendämmerung and beyond that the new dawn”


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[…] over at IdealGov of what today’s cancellation means, why ContactPoint was a bad idea, and what happens […]

Stewart E wrote on August 6th, 2010 5:44 pm :

WIBBI we had a way of linking services with which vulnerable children come into contact, so that information can be shared and the kinds of not-joined-up-actions that were apparent in a string of high profile child non-protection cases didn’t occur.

oh, my mistake – you’re applauding it’s demise. Oddly, care, education and health professionals aren’t. maybe they’re better placed to know what’s best?


William Heath wrote on August 7th, 2010 9:40 pm :

I’ve explained why I think Contactpoint was a bad idea. You show strength of feeling, but not much depth of argument. The R4 Today programme wanted to find these people who’d stand up and argue it was a bad idea to close ContactPoint: they couldnt find any. They ended up asking those who had campaigned for its abolition wherther they knew anyone who would argue against it! Pfff. You’re welcome to attack my arguments and make the case why ContactPoint was after all the right solution. But please use common courtesy and avoid provocative language.

Julian Brearley wrote on August 12th, 2010 3:12 pm :

The problem with canning Contactpoint was that E-CAF got canned in the process too. Quite apart from the fact that we’ve just wasted a lot of taxpayers money each authority will now need to develop a local framework to help the agencies work together to safeguard the most vunerable.

Absolutely and wholeheartedly agree with Stewart E – next time a kid gets killed look at what caused it and re-read the Laming report – the professionals can’t do their job properly unless they have a holistic view of other interactions of their colleagues with the family and these don’t exist in one place (now). Contactpoint wasn’t going to give you any detail on what the interaction was – it simply flagged that there was an ongoing interaction so other professionals knew.

Consent to information sharing is all very well, but the parents of the children most at risk are notoriously difficult to reach and often devious and manipulative. They are highly unlikely to be ticking any consent to share boxes anytime soon.