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How data can target Covid financial support to those in need

Written by Peter Ranscombe for The University of Edinburgh, Research with Impact (Published July 2021)


  • Shaping support for recovery
  • Keeping customers data safe
  • Insight to create services

A strategic partnership is delivering insights into how the coronavirus pandemic has affected people’s income, spending, and saving. The findings will help shape the economic recovery and future financial support schemes, while keeping customers’ data safe and secure.

Data has been at the heart of charting the pandemic’s impact on the health of the nation, from infections and deaths through to vaccinations and the R number. But what about the impact on our personal finances?

The facts and figures gathered about the spread of the pandemic and the way it was brought under control will be essential to understanding this outbreak and tackling future crises. Yet the same is also true about the impact of the virus on the economy and personal finances – if information is not collected, then governments will not be able to learn lessons and respond more effectively during future outbreaks.

NatWest teamed up with Smart Data Foundry to do just that.

Data about customers’ earning, spending and saving has been shared by the bank to give an insight into their personal finances before and during the pandemic – and as we emerge from the other side. NatWest removes personal information that could be used to identify individuals before sharing the data with Smart Data Foundry. This means that any customer data is checked to remove any identifying factors, with small samples and customers under the age of 18 also excluded.

“Public trust in how data is used is absolutely crucial and so we’ve spent a lot of time and effort with the bank to make sure this data is used in a responsible and secure way,” explains Frank Gauld, Chief Executive at Smart Data Foundry. “Our use of the data has a very clearly-defined purpose. NatWest has given us data from one million customers, both NatWest and Royal Bank of Scotland, so we have a sizeable sample from throughout Great Britain. The flow of data is ongoing, so we can chart the progress of household finances as we emerge from the pandemic.”

Smart Data Foundry was one of the first major data-themed partnerships following the launch of the University’s Data-Driven Innovation (DDI) initiative, part of the City Region Deal. Under DDI, the University is creating a network of hubs to help public, private and third sector organisations improve products and services through research coupled with high-powered data analytics.

Shaping support for recovery

Smart Data Foundry has created an economic dashboard using the banks’ data to share insights with NatWest and with UK and Scottish government departments, helping to inform decisions about the policies that will be needed to support the economic recovery.

The UK Government has spent billions to support individuals and businesses through the pandemic. Yet, in order to keep public spending and national debt at sustainable levels, support for the economic recovery will need to be more targeted. Any future pandemics or other international crises will also need to be tackled in a more focused way to make sure finite financial resources reach the people who need them most.

One of the advantages of using financial data from Smart Data Foundry and NatWest Group is the speed with which policymakers can access information, gaining an almost real-time insight into how the pandemic affected individual and company’ finances. Previously, the economic data used by governments to develop policy has come from snapshot economic surveys, which take time to conduct and analyse, capture a single point in time, and only represent a small sample of the UK.

Keeping customers’ data safe

Underpinning NatWest and Smart Data Foundry’s partnership is a focus on keeping data safe and secure. Smart Data Foundry has access to the University of Edinburgh’s Financial Data Safe Haven, which provides the infrastructure needed to maintain security.

Yet keeping data safe is about more than simply fighting off cyber criminals. Customers want to know that their privacy will be protected and need to trust the companies and organisations that will be using their information.

Smart Data Foundry has tackled these questions by creating transparent legal agreements, not only with the businesses and organisations supplying data but also with the governments, researchers, companies, and other bodies that will have access to the insights. Those agreements are based on industry best practice for sharing data – to give consumers confidence that their data is in safe hands and go beyond simply examining the legal ramifications of data sharing by also exploring the ethical considerations.

It’s important to note that Smart Data Foundry only ever shares the insights gathered from the data and never shares the actual data with anyone else.

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Insight to create services

Dan Globerson, Head of Open Banking at NatWest, adds:

“Using real financial data for social good and allowing governments, companies and people to make better economic and financial decisions supports our approach to sustainable banking and our journey to become a more purposeful company. This partnership will provide much-needed research from real data to aid governments around the world to get back on their feet after the tidal wave of devastation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Beyond the economic recovery from the pandemic, the data shared between NatWest and Smart Data Foundry is already being put to other uses to benefit society. The information is helping to fuel research into how financially vulnerable older people are saving for their retirement, in partnership with abrdn Financial Fairness Trust.