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Frank Gauld talking about financial data's role in unlocking social challenges.

Financial data a key to social challenges

SDR UK’s new blog series, the World of Smart Data Research, is an opportunity to explore the constantly evolving world of smart data research. If you’re interested in contributing, please get in touch at smartdataresearch@ukri.org. Here, Frank Gauld, from Smart Data Foundry, discusses the potential uses of smart data from the financial sector.

Unlocking the Power of Financial Data for Social Good

Imagine a world where financial data, traditionally locked away in private silos, becomes a powerful enabler for ground-breaking research and social change. This is the vision that fuels our work at Smart Data Foundry. We believe private-sector financial data holds a wealth of community intelligence, waiting to be harnessed and used to address some of society’s most pressing challenges. 

Unlocking the potential of private-sector data 

Financial institutions hold an ever-growing mountain of data that offers invaluable yet untapped insights for researchers and policymakers. Here at Smart Data Foundry, we recognise the potential to use this data, de-identified and aggregated, to tackle three critical issues:  

Socioeconomics

  • Unravelling the intricate links between financial data and societal issues such as poverty and financial inclusion. 

Health-economics

  • Linking financial data with health information to explore the economic ramifications of health issues and the potential health consequences due to financial circumstances, empowering targeted solutions. 

Climate economics

  • Using financial data to gauge the financial repercussions of climate change, helping to guide sustainable development strategies that can empower the journey to net zero.

Bridging the gap between data and action 

Unlocking the potential of this data is not without hurdles. Despite holding a wealth of data, financial institutions struggle to use it for social good due to privacy concerns, governance issues and resource limitations. Additionally, valuable insights may only be gained when linking financial data with other datasets, something financial institutions are typically not equipped to do. This creates a significant gap between the raw data and the insights that could solve critical social challenges. 

This is where Smart Data Foundry steps in. We act as a bridge between the vast untapped potential of financial data and the researchers and decision-makers who can use it for good to tackle social challenges.  

A Trusted Research Environment: ethical data stewardship 

One of the hallmarks of Smart Data Foundry’s approach as trusted data custodians is our commitment to data privacy and security. We have rigorous protocols in place to ensure the ethical use of data held in our Trusted Research Environment (TRE). Our TRE infrastructure is provided by the Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre (EPCC) at the University of Edinburgh, a supercomputing centre with a strong track record of supporting secure cutting-edge research and developing technical capability. This is governed by our Information Governance team, using the Five Safes framework alongside a robust legal and risk framework, with regulatory input from our ground-breaking participation in the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) Sandbox; a service which ensures our data practices align with regulatory expectations and industry best practices. Our dedication to creating a secure research environment underscores our commitment to responsible smart data stewardship. 

Enabling cutting-edge research  

From a research perspective, we believe there is power in data linkage. By combining financial data with other ancillary datasets and open data sources, we can paint a more complete picture and open doors to even more innovative research possibilities. Prime examples of this include:

  • Working in collaboration with the Usher Institute at the University of Edinburgh to explore how safely linking financial data with health data can unlock unique insights. 
  • A pioneering partnership with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to make near real-time financial data available via our trusted research environment; enabling researchers to undertake cutting-edge, in-depth research, with unparalleled immediacy and accuracy. 

Turning data into actionable insights: empowering decision-making

Smart Data Foundry securely stewards data for research in the public interest as well as translating it into actionable insights that are used to revolutionise decision-making. Here are some examples of our most impactful work: 

Local authorities

  • Partnering with East Renfrewshire Council to introduce a pioneering Cost-of-Living Dashboard. Using near real-time de-identified banking data, this dashboard integrates financial well-being indicators with contextual information, aiding the council in understanding the challenges citizens face during the current cost-of-living crisis. This model has the potential to be rolled out nationwide. 

SMEs

  • Partnering with Sage and the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) to publish a quarterly SME Tracker that illuminates the health of the UK economy’s small business sector. 

Government decision making

  • Providing crucial insights on income, expenditure, and financial well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic, informing effective policy responses.

Income volatility

  • Collaborating with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, we developed the Income Volatility Dashboard. This provides a unique view of the impact of income volatility and economic insecurity on consumers. 

Looking to the Future: Expanding Reach and Collaboration 

We know we cannot achieve our ambitious goals alone. We’re actively seeking new data partnerships with financial institutions to enrich our data pool, as we progress on our journey towards making private sector financial data an essential part of the UK research infrastructure. Only by working together in partnership can we unlock the power of financial data to create a positive impact at scale and unlock the full potential of financial data for social good. 

Frank Gauld is the CEO of Smart Data Foundry. You can watch his appearance at the recent Institute for Government’s Data Bites – Smart Data Special here.

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