Big data. Bigger headache

By Chad Wilson

Imagine it’s rubbish day, you’ve taken the trash out and the rubbish man approaches you for your personal information. It is imperative otherwise he cannot provide his service.  What happens next? Do you comply? Give fake information? Or do you forgo this unnecessary invasion of privacy and just stop getting your garbage collected?  It’s just the rubbish after all. Now, imagine it’s something serious, for example access to community social services like domestic violence response. Why are vulnerable people being oppressed by services that purport to help them? It is the ministry’s perpetual quest for data in the name of social investment.

Social investment is about what people need which services and what works best. Social investment also concerns itself with predictive risk management, attempting to predict who is most likely to require services in the future, however big data is needed for this process. Future MSD contracts will require individual client level data (ICLD) from community agencies to assess effectiveness and efficiency. ICLD can include name age, birth date, address, number of dependants and programme of intervention. There are numerous issues with requiring ICLD including privacy, liability and the rationale for collecting the data.  MSD stores vast amounts of data and recently had a security system breach, bringing into question the safety of ICLD and data at MSD.

Social workers are being used as tools to oppress marginalised people. Social workers would be in breach of the privacy act if they were required to collect information but were unable to tell service users why, as they themselves did not know. In a neoliberal era, social services are products that MSD buys, so they feel entitled to know everything about the people accessing these services. There is no clear rationale for collecting ICLD when anonymised data fulfils the same function. The integrated data infrastructure could potentially be used to create synthetic control groups for research purposes.

This data collection may place another barrier between people and services.  It seems as though being marginalised means you have less of a right to privacy. It is embarrassing that the government – who is tasked with looking after people – is doing the opposite, oppressing them for their private information, supposedly in the name of better service. Service users are essentially powerless as there would be no possibility to opt out and there is nowhere else to go, all services are funded by MSD.  If there is no opt-out method then some people will not access the service. Has there been any consideration for the potentially devastating outcomes that could occur if people are too concerned about information sharing to access the services they may desperately need (e.g. domestic violence, counselling, alcoholism response)? Social workers should be vehemently opposing this as there are many obvious drawbacks for service users.

Accessing community social services and maintaining personal privacy should not be mutually exclusive. Here’s hoping the rubbish aspects of this policy are taken out, and something less harmful  replaces it.


Big data backdown unlikely. (2017). Newsroom. Retrieved 28 April 2017, from

Govt requests NGO client data – Why do they need this?. (2017). Sciblogs. Retrieved 28 April 2017, from

Speech from Brendan Boyle, Chief Executive for Ministry of Social Development – Ministry of Social Development. (2017). Retrieved 28 April 2017, from

WAVES Trust :: ComVoices paper highlights issues with govt requiring individual client level data. (2017). Retrieved 28 April 2017, from



About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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