1. Scope

This policy is applicable to all Office for National Statistics (ONS) staff when collecting or using data obtained from social media platforms to produce statistics and conduct exploratory statistical research that serves the public good. It does not set out methodological approaches for using and analysing social media data.  

This includes data obtained through primary routes, such as Application Program Interfaces (APIs), and direct acquisition from data suppliers, along with secondary methods, such as downloads and web scraping for which the ONS Web Scraping Policy also applies.  

The policy outlines the main ethical considerations of using social media data. It also provides practical guidance to ensure that the ONS uses the data in line with the ONS Data Ethics Policy and principles of the National Statistician’s Data Ethics Advisory Committee (NSDEC).

The scope of this policy does not include any use of social media data for non-statistical purposes or statistical research into the operation or management of an organisation’s web presence on social media platforms. This policy also differs from the ONS Social Media Policy, which outlines the appropriate behaviours of civil servants when using social media.

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2. Background

Social media are defined as web-based platforms that enable and facilitate users to generate and share contents, allowing subsequent online interactions with other users.

The variety of social media (for example, social networks, media sharing and hosting sites, blogs, and discussion platforms) is indicative of the complexities of online social interactions and can offer invaluable insights on population data and economic statistics. 

Most social media provide downloadable applications that run on mobile devices, such as smartphones or tablet computers, along with tools such as Application Program Interfaces (APIs) that facilitate the access of datasets for specific use dictated by the accompanying terms and conditions. While terms and conditions can vary between platforms, ONS staff must read, understand, and comply with the agreed terms and conditions of service of the social media platforms.

The ONS Economic Statistics and Analysis Strategy underpins the use of social media data and its value in helping understand social and economic features of the UK economy. The collection of social media data may have advantages over traditional forms of data collection like surveys, such as reduced respondent burden and improved timeliness of statistical outputs.

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3. Policy statement

This policy sets out overarching principles on how social media data can be used by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in the production of official statistics and in statistical research. Social media includes any internet-based application that supports user-generated content and social networking through connecting individual and group profiles. 

ONS researchers must consider the appropriateness and proportionality of using social media data for statistics and statistical research and ensure that the projects have clear public benefit.

When using social media data, researchers must follow accompanying guidance on best practice. They must ensure that their use of these data is lawful, ethical, and fair, and that the risk to individuals, particularly minors, is considered and mitigated.  

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4. Policy detail

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) will seek to minimise any negative consequences associated with the collection and use of social media data for statistics and research.

The purpose of this policy is to ensure that social media data are used responsibly within the ONS. This includes ensuring that social media data are used:

  • to meet specific user needs that serve the public good
  • legally, complying with all relevant legislation and in accordance with the associated terms and conditions of service  
  • ethically, in line with the ONS Data Ethics Policy and independent National Statistician's Data Ethics Advisory Committee (NSDEC) ethical principles  
  • consistently, following advice from the ONS Data Governance Committee (DGC) and the Data Acquisition team in the ONS Data Acquisition and Operations (DAO) division  
  • with the highest professional standards for statistics, social research, and data science in government  

A light touch approach can be taken for early scoping or discovery work to evaluate the potential in a future project. At a minimum, ONS researchers should inform the Data Acquisition team and ONS Legal Services of their intended use of social media data, check associated terms and conditions, and complete the ethics self-assessment form. Sample data should also be treated with an appropriate level of data protection and security. 

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5. Roles and responsibilities

Office for National Statistics (ONS) researchers

Responsible for:

  • Complying with this policy when considering and using social media data for statistics and statistical research.

  • Following necessary steps in the policy, such as considering the self-assessed checklist and completing the ethics self-assessment form and/or Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA).

  • Seeking any clarification and assurance from the ONS Data Acquisition team, the UK Statistics Authority Data Ethics, and/or ONS Legal Services.

Accountable to:

  • line managers.

Data Acquisition, Data Acquisition and Operations (DAO)

Responsible for:

  • Advising ONS researchers on any alternative and/or existing data sources and on the details of this policy.

  • Seeking advice from ONS Legal Services, UK Statistics Authority Data Ethics, National Statistician's Data Ethics Advisory Committee (NSDEC) , and/or Data Governance Committee (DGC) when needed.

Accountable to:

  • DGC.

Data Governance Committee (DGC)

Responsible for:

  • Ensuring the consistent application of this policy to all ONS staff.

  • Assessing the organisational risk by using social media data for statistics and statistical research.

Accountable to:

  • National Statistics Executive Group.

UK Statistics Authority Data Ethics

Responsible for:

  • Providing advice on ethical issues as the first point of contact, and on the NSDEC process if additional advice from NSDEC is required.

Accountable to:

  • Head of Data Governance Policy and Legislation.

National Statistician's Data Ethics Advisory Committee (NSDEC)

Responsible for:

  • Providing independent advice on ethical issues if required.

Accountable to:

  • National Statistician.

Legal Services

Responsible for:

  • Providing advice on current and evolving legal issues if required.
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