24 August 2023

Local authorities and the AI revolution

Local authorities and the AI revolution image
Image: metamorworks / Shutterstock.com.

Stephen Almond, director of Technology and Innovation, Information Commissioner’s Office discusses what councils have to consider when it comes to artificial intelligence (AI).

The revolution is here. From ChatGPT to Google Bard, it seems that everywhere you look great strides are being made in Artificial Intelligence (AI).

The potential benefits of AI are plain to see. It can streamline processes, reduce costs, improve services, and increase staff power. If local authorities can utilise AI properly, those benefits can then be delivered to citizens.

Yet the economic and societal benefits of these innovations are only possible by maintaining the trust of the public. While not related to AI, we have seen from recent high-profile data breaches that when data is mishandled, trust is damaged, and that can make the public reluctant to work with authorities in the future.

It is important that where local authorities use AI, it is employed in a way that is fair, in accordance with the law, and repays the trust that the public put in them when they hand their data over.

So many of people’s interactions with the government, both local and central, involve us handing over data about ourselves. This could be as simple as our name or date of birth, or as sensitive as our financial history or health information.

People should feel confident that this data is handled appropriately, lawfully, and fairly. They should be sure that AI is used in a way that benefits them, and they should also be confident that none of their personal data is being used to discriminate against them, either consciously or unconsciously.

So what should local government do to ensure that they can benefit from advancements of AI while maintaining the trust of the public?

Firstly, they should take a data protection by design and default approach.

As a data controller, local authorities are responsible for ensuring that their processing complies with the UK GDPR. That means having a clear understanding of what personal data is being held and why it is needed, how long it is kept for, and erase it when it is no longer required.

Data processed using algorithms, data analytics or similar systems should be reactively and proactively reviewed to ensure it is accurate and up to date. This includes any processing carried out by an organisation or company on their behalf.

If a local authority decides to engage a third party to process personal data using algorithms, data analytics or AI, they are responsible for assessing that they are competent to process personal data in line with the UK GDPR.

They should also be transparent with people about how they are using their data.

Local authorities should regularly review their privacy policies, and identify areas for improvement. There are some types of information that organisations must always provide, while the provision of other types of information depends on the circumstances of the organisation, and how and why people’s personal data is used. They should also bring any new uses of an individual’s personal data to their attention.

They should further ensure that how they are using people’s data – and the outcomes that result – are fair.

Fairness should be at the core of the public sector’s approach to AI to ensure it remains accountable to the people it serves. This is particularly important because people typically don’t have a choice to go to an alternative public service if they consider that a public sector organisation has processed their information unfairly. The ICO’s guidance on AI can help organisations think through fairness considerations.

They should further ensure that they identify the potential risks to people’s privacy. How can local authorities do this? They should consider conducting a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) to help identify and minimise the data protection risks of using algorithms, AI or data analytics. A DPIA should consider compliance risks, but also broader risks to the rights and freedoms of people, including the potential for any significant social or economic disadvantage. Our DPIA checklist can help when carrying out this screening exercise.

As the use of AI in everyday life increases we have an opportunity to ensure it does not expand without due regard for data protection, fairness and the rights of individuals.

We want to see the benefits of AI delivered to the public, and we will continue to work with and support the public sector to ensure that the use of AI is lawful, and that a fair balance is struck between their own purposes and the interests and rights of the public.

If you were interested in this article, then check out our feature, 'How AI can assist councils with social housing allocations'.

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