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Data is a shared responsibility

  By Martha Horler   - Thursday 21 February 2019

If you were to look at your organisational chart, could you pinpoint all the departments that are responsible for the data? Within a university or college you may have a data returns department, a student records management team, or maybe you would focus on the IT department that look after the databases. All these areas are responsible for the management of the data in your organisation, but for the true responsibility we need to look wider than that. To function properly, every single employee needs to take a share of the responsibility for the data that makes our organisations run.

Who is responsible?

A member of staff entering student information or details of an interaction with them into a system is responsible for that data input, making sure it is accurate, timely and understandable. However, this is only part of that data journey. That data needs to be managed correctly by our IT staff, it needs to be acted on in an appropriate way by others, it needs careful handling when aggregating into statistics for publication.

Those who do not enter data but analyse it to help make decisions need to be responsible for how they handle it so that they do not mis-represent it. Those that make the decisions need to do so with an understanding of how that data was gathered and what its limitations are. This responsibility even applies to those that may never use a computer – the way that we train staff to report issues and pass on information is also a key part of the process.

Data stewards

We must not confuse data with wisdom, despite all of the hype generated about it. Experts are still needed to help make sense of the data, particularly as its estimated that only 20% of the world’s data is currently searchable – though this may change quickly with advances in artificial intelligence. Data stewards can become part of a process that provides context to the data, making sense of it and highlighting the areas that matter most.

One way of building up awareness of the responsibilities we all have over our organisational data is through data stewards. These are roles that probably already exist in your teams, but not called that as they are often just one line on a job description, if at all. Data stewards are usually subject matter experts that can represent the interests of their data area and are accountable for its quality and how it is used. If you manage a data set, understand the rules applied to it, and can talk someone through how it is used, then you are a data steward. The higher education sector would benefit from a greater awareness of this role, but even more so if proper training is given on how to safeguard and leverage the data entrusted to them. Once these roles are supported and acknowledged, they can help to make the rest of us more aware of how we are gathering, storing and using our data.

Data management is a relatively new practice, and it’s a fast-moving area that is constantly evolving. It makes the news when things go wrong, or when legislation changes the landscape as GDPR did. Many people do not feel as confident in using it as they would like, and some try very hard to ignore it as long as they can. But doing so means you miss out on what it can do for us, and this can easily lead to mistakes being made. Data is a shared responsibility for all of us now, both our own data and that which we work with every day.

Martha Horler is a Data & Compliance Manager and a member of the SROC Steering Committee. She has spent over 10 years working in higher education, much of that with data and information systems. She has a particular interest in raising data literacy across higher education, with the aim of making data more accessible to both users and senior managers. Follow her on Twitter @thedatagoddess

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