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Let’s talk about data — new report: the words we use in data policy

Remember the “mutant algorithms” of exams 2020? This week all the ministers with responsibilities for digital and data got reshuffled and just as the government launched a new consultation on changing national data laws.

The UK data strategy is at a decision point in the crossroads of future national policy, outlined in “Data: a New Direction.”

The world in thirty years is going to be unrecognizably datamined and it’s going to be really fun to watch,” said Jose Ferreira in 2012, then CEO of the adaptive learning company Knewton, at the White House US Datapalooza. Nearly ten years on, young people don’t find it fun, but they do feel exploited.

The National Data Strategy has been described as ‘the start of a conversation’. So how is that conversation going? What about the public engagement over the last decade? Who is included and who has been left out? In the language used by politicians, too often children tend to be left out completely unless it’s about children at risk. Metaphors can be used to simplify complexity in the debate on data, but is it helping or hindering how we frame the solutions? And just as the language on data doesn’t fit with young people’s expectations, it doesn’t fit well with our legal frameworks for data governance either.

It is therefore timely that we have published our new report, asking policy makers to change their approach.

Report: The words we use in data policy: putting people back in the picture, defenddigitalme (2021)

Available to view and download from:

Illustrator: Gracie Dahl

A talk about and discussion of the report:
from the online ODI Friday lunchtime lecture on Friday 17th September. [link]


“What do Gen Z want from politicians talking about data?” We are asking MPs to stop talking about personal data as a product and recognise data about children is about the stories of their lives. Their behaviours, their relations, and records of their lives and interactions with institutions.

We highlight the views of young people from The Warren Youth Project, a youth group from Hull, on what ‘data’ means to them, and argue why the “new direction” national data strategy for UK data governance must be rights-based to be sustainable and for its aims to be achievable. Three key themes developed in their concerns about use of data about their lives:

  • Misrepresentation
  • Power hierarchies and abuses of power
  • Agency and control over what data used ‘in your best interests’ may mean

And we’ve looked at the language MPs use in Parliament about data since 2010. MPs trip up in debates, where using analogies like “data is the new oil” gets them into difficult dead ends and restricts what they can say about the nature of personal data. It limits clear and logical expressions of thinking on how data should be governed.

Data is the new avocado” might describe the decaying shelf life of records, but not much more. “The new oil” cannot tell a child’s life story. Being framed as “the fuel of artificial intelligence” of the “lifeblood of the economy” leaves people feeling used. These metaphors fail to describe the multi-faceted nature of personal data, and do not reflect its incompleteness, accuracy, or the authentic self.

The language of commodities doesn’t work on children’s terms or engender the respect young people want to see for the person the data is about.  It fails to build the relationship or propose the mechanisms the UK state needs between institutions and individuals to create the trust required to allow the supply and quality of data  needed for its free flow that policy makers so desperately want to promote in new trade deals. Tell me what you will do, and show me that you did it.

We propose how to reconcile the focus, governance frameworks, and actions to take in the UK national data strategy, to move the conversation forward with the human flourishing of our future generations at its heart.

With a foreword from Jeni Tennison, Vice President and Chief Strategy Adviser at the Open Data Institute.


We are indebted to the youth participants and The Warren Youth Project who supported us, helped shape our thinking, and gave their time to discuss the ideas in a workshop in April 2021. We thank our funders the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. We also appreciate the contribution of many others. In particular we want to thank Ade Adewumni, Douwe Korff, Ian Brown, Jeni Tennison for the guest foreword, JJ Tatten, Lee Andrews, and Lydia Rangeley.

Research on conceptual data metaphors
Julia Slupska

Workshop design and facilitation
Alice Thwaite