An Access to Justice Data Federation

Etic Lab wins funding from the Open Data Institute to explore privacy-protecting data collaborations in the Access to Justice sector

Today, the Open Data Institute announced funding for seven UK initiatives and projects as part of their Innovate UK funded R&D programme. Etic Lab were one of the seven winners of the fund and will be joining a range of other fascinating projects on the programme till March 2021. We will be using the funding, support and mentorship provided by experts at the Open Data Institute (ODI) to explore the problem of how to build data collaborations in contexts where institutional, commercial and regulatory imperatives – particular concerns over privacy and security – make conventional data sharing difficult or impossible.

This Stimulus Fund is part of the ODI’s research and development programme – which includes a project to support data institutions in becoming sustainable and a project to create guidance and tools to help sectors build data infrastructure and address common challenges – and a broader programme of work on data institutions. A data institution is an organisation whose purpose involves stewarding data on behalf of others, often towards public, educational or charitable aims.

Leigh Dodds, Director of Delivery at the ODI said: 

“These seven projects show the potential that sharing data has to solve challenges in the energy and health sectors in the UK and globally. It’s great to see people coming together to solve challenges that affect us all, like the cooperative using smart meter data to help individuals make better decisions on their climate impact.

“At the ODI, we want to help these projects succeed. Our experience of ethical data sharing and improving data infrastructure, like supporting and growing data institutions and data access initiatives, will help these projects become sustainable for the benefit of all. We look forward to working with the projects to also learn from them and help to develop tools and guidance that will support the development of other impactful initiatives.”

Our Project

This project follows on from our work on the Routes to Justice project, a feasibility study into the potential of digital technologies such as AI and machine learning to create systemic impact in the Access to Justice sector (by which we mean the array of local and national charities, legal practices and law clinics who provide free and affordable legal advice to people without the means or expertise to secure the necessary guidance and representation). 

Like all modern organisations, legal advice charities collect and store large quantities of data regarding the services they offer to their clients. With the intelligent application of data analytics or machine learning, this data could yield insights which would help these charities evaluate their work or better understand their clients’ needs. However, our research found that many advice charities struggle to access the knowledge contained within their data, in part because concerns over the privacy and security of clients’ sensitive information prevent them from embarking on such ambitious projects. For instance, in order to gather datasets large and diverse enough to apply machine learning, separate charities would ordinarily be obliged to combine their data into a single pool – a legal and ethical liability that Access to Justice organisations, understandably, refuse to countenance. As a consequence, data remains siloed and both individual charities and the sector as a whole are unable to capitalize on the evaluative and strategic possibilities offered by digital technologies.

Our goal is to help facilitate collaborative frameworks which enable the Access to Justice sector to work around these seemingly intractable problems. Part of this will mean the implementation of privacy-preserving data analytics technologies, such as federated learning, differential privacy and synthetic data, which enable collaborating organisations to access the insights provided by a process such as machine learning without having to expose their data to any third party or store it in a central location. However, we are under no illusion that technology in itself will provide the solution to the complex problems we are trying to address. For this reason, we intend to work alongside our partners in the sector to build templates for the kinds of protocols, agreements and governance frameworks necessary to make these collaborations function. Our aim is to work with the sector to identify and ameliorate barriers to collaboration on their terms, thus requiring the minimal possible degree of behavioural change from a group of organisations who are already hard-pressed by limited resources and rising demand. 

For the past decade, the Access to Justice sector has fought tirelessly to preserve the principle of universal equality before the law in the face of cuts to legal aid and other key services. Thus far, it has been obliged to do so without the ability to track and evaluate its own work at a systemic level. Access to insights generated from system-wide data – without exposing sensitive or proprietary information – would enable the sector to identify examples of best practice, areas of need, and to formulate collective strategies for the years ahead. These challenges are beyond the scope of our small project, but we hope that what we learn over the next six months might provide some pointers as to how to address them in the long-term.

For more information, or to get involved, please get in touch with the team.