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Four global trends which may shape how citizen data is used in the future

The Government Office for Science team highlight findings from their recent Future of Citizen Data Systems report concerning four global trends expected to shape the future of citizen data systems.

Future of Citizen Data Blog image, showing a man on a tablet, a data server, CCTV cameras, and a payment machine
Citizen data is generated every day, across all aspects of life.

Everywhere we go, shop and travel, and when we browse online, we are generating data and leaving a digital footprint. This data comes in many forms – from banking details to social media data and even CCTV footage – the collective result of our individual data creation is often referred to as ‘citizen data’.

Types of citizen data, from the Government Office for Science Future of Citizen Data Systems report (2020)

We’ve all benefited from these services and uses of data – whether it’s avoiding traffic jams, finding a local business without having to sift through every result on the internet, or staying connected with friends and family overseas through social media. But there are trade-offs between privacy and connectivity. Linking together citizen data from different sources has the potential to improve services and create business opportunities, but also for misuse and, without careful management, harm to individuals, society and national security.

Our clicks, DMs, swipes and likes are contributing to shaping how companies and governments around the world are using our data, which is changing rapidly. To inform the government’s National Data Strategy consultation, published last month, GO-Science consulted over 75 academic and policy experts to understand how global trends in values, technologies and demographics might influence data systems in the future. Four important factors are explored below.

Four global trends likely to be mirrored in data systems

1. Increased concern for energy use and its environmental impacts

Global digital energy consumption is increasing at around 9% a year. Digital technologies as a whole are thought to be responsible for around the same level of carbon dioxide emissions per year as the aviation industry. Better use of data may help us to reduce our consumption; one of the best known examples of this is DeepMind who used AI to achieve 30% energy savings on Google data centres. However it is more likely that the amount of energy used by digital technologies will increase as the volume of data being processed grows, up to as much as 21% of global electricity demand by 2030.

2. Geopolitics playing out in data governance

Geopolitical power can help states or blocs export values, products, and business models, and there is evidence that this is happening for data systems. For example, this can happen when businesses export data governance models from their country through their product offering, or by countries imposing data requirements for trade on businesses. Despite the differences in the EU’s more privacy-focussed approach to data and the Chinese data sovereignty approach, both models can be seen as being exported internationally, for example to emerging markets. There is potential for data governance models to both respond to and cause shifts in citizen values, and change people’s views around data and privacy.

3. Shifts in economic gravity and internet user demographics

These differences in data handling between countries highlights the tension between national priorities and the inherently global nature of the internet and digital markets. As emerging economies account for 75% of global economic growth, it is likely that data-intensive businesses will grow in these countries or shift to operating within them. In addition, although more than half of the people in the world are now online, there is huge variation underlying this figure – only 26% of Africans are online, compared to 80% internet uptake by Europeans. However, due to sheer population size, Africa would only need to reach 40% of people online to have greater numbers than Europe – and this is expected to happen around 2025. These trends may have knock-on effects on global data governance, and the overall balance of power between regional data systems.

4. Emerging technologies

Novel approaches to data analysis, including some advanced machine learning methods and the use of synthetic data, may change the value of large volumes of data in future. Instead the diversity or timeliness of a given dataset may become more important, influencing business and government incentives to collect it. Future innovations in computing such as a shift towards ‘edge processing’ could reduce some privacy risks associated with analysing citizen data, as could the development of privacy enhancing technologies.

How do we use our understanding of these trends to inform policy?

While an understanding of trends is key, the current pandemic has shown us that disruptors may have a huge role in shaping society – and examples of disruptors that could affect data systems are highlighted in the report, including economic shocks, political changes and global crises.

This is where future scenarios come in handy. To construct scenarios around what data systems might look like in 2030, we surveyed around 40 international experts from across industry, academia and the voluntary sector, and workshopped the results with 35 policy experts from within government and the wider public sector. These scenarios are designed to help policy-makers assess long-term impacts of policies by assessing options against a range of plausible futures.

Foresight scenarios for Future of Citizen Data Science report, including divergent data nationalism, multipolarity, deregulation, and multilateralism.
Four scenarios developed for policy-makers as part of the Government Office for Science's Future of Citizen Data Science report (2020)

References and detail on these issues are set out in our report. If this is of interest to you, have a look at the scenarios in our report to consider what citizen data systems may look like in the future.

If you are a policy-maker interested in using the scenarios or other futures tools to test policy proposals in your area, please get in touch with our team at

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