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The ABC of the DPA

If you're confused by the Data Protection Act, take heart. Judith Wardle offers a whistle-stop tour of its basic provisions.

In the past year the Data Protection Act has been blamed for the Gas Board failing to tell social services about an elderly couple in danger of hypothermia, and for the Police failing to check the credentials of Soham murderer Ian Huntley.

Yet it’s quite straightforward really. At its heart is the notion that it is wrong to pass any personal information about someone to anyone else, without that individual’s fully-informed consent. It has parallels with primitive people not allowing strangers to take their photo in the belief that they will be stealing their soul.

So what are the basics?

First, be aware of your responsibilities. Capturing personal information about respondents needn’t just consist of a name and address. It can be a picture of a person, moving or still, a turn of phrase or anything else that will identify them to someone who knows them already. The sound of someone’s voice, for example, can be his or her most enduring fingerprint. The information could be ‘captured’ in a recruitment questionnaire, on a recruiter’s card filing system and even on notes taken by clients observing groups.

The most important principle is that of informed consent: respondents need to know that you will be collecting information about them, how you will collect it and, as precisely as possible, what is going to happen to it — before they commit to coming along.

What does all this mean in practice? Put simply, we need to make more decisions earlier — at briefing meetings — and stick to them. Because we have to let respondents know as much as possible at recruitment, we need to agree with clients whether they want it filmed, whether they want the tapes and what they are going to use the tapes for. You can’t change it at a later date.

Clients are equally bound by the Act and have to use the tapes only for the things that respondents know and have agreed to. It’s much more upfront and, I think, all the better for it.

It starts to get complicated if clients want to use the tapes for anything other than market research and to show anyone other than the team directly involved with the project, say for training. In our company, we tend to get round this by doing the research in the normal way and then running an extra group or interview, making that specific purpose overt — sometimes re-contacting the same respondents.

Once you venture into projects that can’t be described as market research, you have to think carefully about what you and your recruiters do. They can’t use their MR identity cards, for example, and any telephone numbers need to be checked against the Telephone Preference Service. Market researchers have special dispensations under the Act, because our own Code of Conduct has anonymity at its heart.

It is worth saying here that putting a re-contact question on your recruitment questionnaires is very useful, because strictly speaking you can’t re-contact people again without having their permission to do so.

The basics, therefore, are that personal information must be:

  • fairly and lawfully processed, i.e. you have to tell respondents what will happen to the tapes and questionnaires, request their permission to do so and get your clients to promise that that’s what will happen.

  • obtained for specific purposes, meaning that you can’t do anything else with the tapes that you hadn’t told them originally

  • adequate, relevant and not excessive, so if you don’t need to know, don’t ask

  • not kept longer than necessary, this means that once the tapes have been used, say for that project that you told respondents about, then you have to destroy them (worth agreeing upfront with clients).

  • held securely, in a cabinet with a key!

  • protected when transferred, more complicated when it comes to sending tapes abroad, especially to the US.

For more help you can contact the wonderful team at the MRS

You can notify (that’s ‘register’ to you and me) at The Information Commissioners Office

Planning ahead. Transparency. Informed Consent. You know it makes sense.

 

Judith Wardle
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2004