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How administrative data revamps notions of identity and memory

25 Oct 2013


There is currently a great effort to channel administrative data towards research. The UK following the example of several countries (e.g. Finland, Denmark, The Netherlands) that make their administrative data available for research has currently established four Administrative Data Research Centres (ADRCs) responsible for safeguarding and analysing administrative data. In the context of this initiative, the public is also involved in order to express its views, aspirations but also fears regarding the linkage and further analysis of administrative data. This was the theme of the pilot meeting, I attended, for a series of Public Dialogues on Administrative Data. In this post, I discuss the possible impact of data linkage to existing administrative practices for identification. I also reflect on the relationship between administrative archives and memory, an issue often raised in the Public Dialogues.

Administrative data, according to the Administrative Data Liaison Service (ADLS), is information collected during the transactions of citizens with the government. Therefore, its primary function is not to be used in research. Nonetheless, the sheer volume of the datasets comprising information on welfare, tax, health and education make administrative data an invaluable source for research. Academic researchers seldom have the opportunity to collect and analyse such large amounts of data for their empirical work. At the same time, governments are capitalising the data they collect gaining insights from novel combinations of the existing information.

The idea of linking administrative data is raising several issues pertaining to identity and memory. The data will be anonymized prior to its linkage. Moreover, researchers will never have direct access to the administrative datasets. They will only have the right to make queries and see the results. Despite the strong safeguards to eliminate the possibility to re-identify individuals via administrative data there are still concerns that bring to the fore the discrepancies between systematic regimes of representation (i.e. public administrations) and individual notions of identity. This is quite important in the case of data linkage. Is the removal of name, age, sex, nationality and address enough to make citizens feel safe about how their data is handled? Or, people characterise as personal, data well beyond the aforementioned categories? There are no clear boundaries especially since the digitization of data makes people more aware of the various ways they could be identified. New sensitivities develop. The very action of completing administrative forms, considered obligatory but rather mundane, is now imbued with more importance as information moves between contexts.

Equally interesting is the realisation that citizens do care about their data in ways often ignored by the administration. People think of administrative data trails as part of a society’s collective memory and feel reluctant to see them discontinued. This is especially true for current government plans to change the form of the census. The very idea that a new administrative data census will disrupt centuries-long practices of data collection stirs a considerable amount of opposition. People think of official archives as sites of memory that can provide valuable information for reconstructing family but also collective narratives. They want data linkage to make these archives more coherent instead of disrupting them. Interestingly, when it comes to preserving memory, the identity-anonymity trade-off becomes less important.

Finally, data linkage seems to change people’s views on the original means of data collection. The paper-based forms acquire bigger significance since they contain information that could potentially re-identify them. It should be noted that these forms stay with the government agencies that originally collect them. They never reach the ADRCs in any circumstance. However, the storage of data in various forms – both anonymized and with personal identifiers - in different locations across public administration raises fears that people will be eventually traced and data linkage will lead to covert profiling. It is these concerns that show that archives considered safe because of their non-digital form gain new significance once they become digitized and their information can be combined. One can even argue that these paper-digital hybrids raise more safety concerns than their constitutive components as people suddenly feel that the informational value of the digital archive increases that of the paper-based one too.