Participant acceptability of digital footprint data collection strategies: an exemplar approach to participant engagement and involvement in the ALSPAC birth cohort study

Kate Shiells*, Nina Di Cara, Anya Skatova, Oliver S.P. Davis, Claire M A Haworth , Andrew L Skinner, Richard G Thomas, Alastair Tanner, John A A Macleod, Nicholas John Timpson, Andy Boyd*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)
97 Downloads (Pure)


Introduction: Digital footprint records - the tracks and traces amassed by individuals as a result of their interactions with the internet, digital devices and services - can provide ecologically valid data on individual behaviours. These could enhance longitudinal population study databanks; but few UK longitudinal studies are attempting this. When using novel sources of data, study managers must engage with participants in order to develop ethical data processing frameworks that facilitate data sharing whilst safeguarding participant interests.

Objectives: This paper aims to summarise the participant involvement approach used by the ALSPAC birth cohort study to inform the development of a framework for using linked participant digital footprint data, and provide an exemplar for other data linkage infrastructures.

Methods: The paper synthesises five qualitative forms of inquiry. Thematic analysis was used to code transcripts for common themes in relation to conditions associated with the acceptability of sharing digital footprint data for longitudinal research.

Results: We identified six themes: participant understanding; sensitivity of location data; concerns for third parties; clarity on data granularity; mechanisms of data sharing and consent; and trustworthiness of the organisation. For cohort members to consider the sharing of digital footprint data acceptable, they require information about the value, validity and risks; control over sharing elements of the data they consider sensitive; appropriate mechanisms to authorise or object to their records being used; and trust in the organisation.

Conclusion: Realising the potential for using digital footprint records within longitudinal research will be subject to ensuring that this use of personal data is acceptable; and that rigorously controlled population data science benefiting the public good is distinguishable from the misuse and lack of personal control of similar data within other settings. Participant co-development informs the ethical-governance framework for these novel linkages in a manner which is acceptable and does not undermine the studies role of trusted data custodian.
Original languageEnglish
JournalInternational Journal of Population Data Science
Issue number3
Early online date16 Mar 2022
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 16 Mar 2022

Structured keywords

  • ICEP


  • Digital Footprints
  • Participant Engagement
  • PPIE
  • Participant Acceptability
  • Trustworthiness
  • Longitudinal Research
  • Cohort Study
  • Trusted research environments


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