Katie Evans, Head of Research and Policy

Our new work programme: Using financial data to support people with mental health problems

30 January 2019

We rely more and more on digital tools and services to run our lives – to find the place we’re looking for, to manage our money, to catch up with friends. Google processes an average of 40,000 searches every second. Every day, 16 million text messages are sent, and 156 million emails.

I’m no different – I spend hours a day on my phone. I check the news and my bank balance on my commute, keep up with friends on Whatsapp, rely on access to my calendar and maps on the go to find my next meeting, and keep in touch with the office while I’m away through email and Slack.

Most of us are increasingly aware of the way these interactions leave a trail of data behind us – a history of our web searches, our conversations, our journeys, our friendships. Often, we worry about how that data could be used negatively. When we see stories about data in the news, it tends to be bad – a leak, a hack, or some other way data has been misused.

But data can also be helpful. For example, my phone has just introduced a screen time feature, which tells me exactly how long each day, and week, I’ve spent staring at the thing. Seeing those figures has been a sobering experience. But by making me aware of the way I’m using my phone, it’s helped me make the decision to put it down on my commute and read a book instead. I’ve also since downloaded an app that lets me reward myself for not picking up my phone for a period of time. These are small tweaks, but I’ve already reduced my weekly screen time by a quarter.

Could the same approach work to make managing money easier?

Many people experiencing mental health problems can struggle to keep track of their money. Some people lose track of spending during periods of increased impulsivity, particularly those associated with the manic phase of bipolar disorder. Other people might withdraw completely from financial management when unwell, leaving bills unpaid. In both cases, if the person usually shops with a credit or debit card or pay bills online – as a growing number of us do – you would think that these changes in behaviour would be sufficiently stark to spot in their bank data.

Many of us, of course, wouldn’t want anyone to be watching our banking activity. Yet for people who know their financial behaviour changes when they’re unwell, but who struggle in those periods of illness to see the signs themselves, someone else keeping watch and letting them or a loved one know something has changed could save much heartache. It might let a family member reach out to offer help, prompt the bank to send a reminder to pay that bill before it’s late, or allow someone to recognise their spending as a sign of illness and seek help.

Making ideas reality

It was ideas like this which led us, nearly two years ago, to partner with the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), the UK’s main regulator of financial services, on a ‘Techsprint’ – a two-day event, bringing financial services firms together with technical experts to design practical tools and products which could help people experiencing mental health problems to manage their money. Many of the ideas they came up with relied on using a person’s banking data, sometimes combined with data from a movement tracker, or social media. We were impressed with the imagination and ingenuity on display.

But, when we caught up with the tech sprint participants in November 2017, we found that few of the tools had ever made it into the hands of real people. When we dug into the reasons why, concerns about using people’s personal data emerged as the key barrier.

Firms told us that while they wanted to help, they weren’t sure that customers wanted them to be looking at their data in this way, or whether they were obliged to by the regulator. And, if customers and the regulator were comfortable with the analysis, it wasn’t clear what best practice would look like – what steps should be taken to ensure that the processing of customer data is fair, effective, legal and in line with the customer’s best interests.

We were left with a heap of complicated questions, and no easy answers.

Time to continue the conversation

Over the last year, we’ve continued to move forwards in other ways. Banks have brought in practical tools, particularly gambling blocks, which could help people experiencing mental health problems, and the language of universal design we began using at the TechsSprint has been increasingly adopted.

But the big questions are still there – and if anything, they’ve grown over the last 12 months, as data protection laws have changed and the Cambridge Analytica scandal has made us all more aware of just how data can be misused.

So we’re delighted to once again be partnering with the FCA for a series of events over the next six months, exploring these questions with a range of experts from financial services and beyond.

We’ll also be seeking input from our Research Community along the way – so if you have lived experience of mental health problems, and this is something you feel strongly about, do sign up today to have your say.