At its most rudimentary level, data is just a bunch of ones and zeros stored in our computers and smartphones. However, data is more than that.
The Economist compares data to oil or energy: a resource that can be traded or reused for profit making¹. The Open Data Institute and the OECD have a different perspective. They compare data to an infrastructural resource² necessary to achieve economic growth, innovation and the overall wellbeing of society in the XXI century. The uniqueness of this resource lies in the fact that many people can use the same data as many times as they want and for as many objectives as imaginable without any loss in quality or quantity³. Just imagine the potential for innovation, not only for the economy but also for improving societal wellbeing.
The European Union has recognised the value of data reuse since 2003, when the first directive related to the reuse of public sector information was adopted. More recently, in 2018, a solid and trusted framework for the protection of personal data and its free flow in the EU was put in place with the entry into force of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which has become an inspiration for privacy regulatory work across the globe. One of the major breakthroughs brought about by the GDPR is in the field of empowerment of data subjects. It has indeed introduced the rights to port personal data from one entity to another. If one remembers the change that the ability to port our telephone numbers brought to competition and consumer empowerment in the telecom market 20 years ago, we could imagine the massive potential behind this right.
Today, our society is confronted with the dilemma to choose between data reuse or privacy. However, there is a third choice: “privacy and data reuse”. And this one will provide us with the highest socioeconomic value. A good example of this is the newly adopted Open Data Directive, which builds on the GDPR obligation to carry out a data protection impact assessment before making certain public sector documents containing personal data available for reuse. Interestingly enough, those countries that do better on data protection are the ones that release more data. Thanks to this framework, the reuse of open government data already contributes to important societal objectives. For example, a study found that it can help save between 54K – 202K lives by providing faster emergency response, up to 27 million hours in public transport or up to €79.6 billion on energy bills, thanks to more solar energy production⁴.
Open government data alone is not enough, though. Public authorities at both national and EU level have not created yet regulatory or policy frameworks that enhance the reuse of either data held by companies or personal data to benefit economic growth and societal wellbeing. Such frameworks should build on our European data protection legislation and provide sufficient safeguards for companies (e.g. commercial secrecy).
Until today, only certain entities, such as online platforms and tech companies, have been able to extract economic value from the processing of personal data. Furthermore, since years we have been openly handing our data to them in exchange for a service. But have you ever considered how your data can also be a crucial resource for doing good for society as a whole, and not only creating profit for a few companies?
People have the power to increase their societal wellbeing through data altruism (aka data donation). Mechanisms to implement their right to data portability may contribute to make their data available for the common good. The exercise of data altruism can help accelerate medical research, improve mobility in cities and air quality, and even reduce social inequalities. Public authorities have a pivotal role in making this happen, both by creating a safe legal and infrastructural environment and by helping grass-roots movements or data charities scale up.
Companies also have a role to play in the use of data for the common good. They collect certain types of data, such as behavioural data (e.g. digital transactions, mobile phone records, GPS location or social media data) that can be crucial to better understand population movements, lifestyle changes and patterns of diseases. When acted upon, data insights can provide for sustainable regional and urban planning, environmentally friendly transport and energy systems, saving lives in humanitarian crises or improving education. For these reasons, during the last five years, some companies have engaged in using data4good, sharing their anonymised and aggregated data with public authorities to help tackle societal challenges. At the EU level, this is known as Business-to-Government (B2G) Data Sharing.
For example, the Commission has reached an agreement with Airbnb, Booking, Expedia Group and Tripadvisor on data sharing so that Eurostat can publish statistical indicators on short-stay accommodations across the EU⁵. Telefónica signed an agreement with the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 2017 to help quantify the rate of forced migration in Colombia due to extreme drought because of climate change⁶. Twitter collaborated with UNICEF to track anti-vaccination sentiment in eastern European social media networks and to develop specific recommendations for improving vaccination strategies⁷. In Amsterdam, a public-private data task force was established in 2017 to stimulate the exchange and sharing of safety-related traffic information between vehicle manufacturers, service providers and Member States⁸.
Unfortunately, these collaborations have not evolved into sustainable initiatives but have remained standalone pilot projects. In 2019, a Commission Expert Group published a set of policy, legal and funding recommendations to help B2G data sharing become a responsible, sustainable and scalable practice across the EU⁹. The recommendations call for public authorities to set up the necessary governance framework for data sharing for the benefit of society, by putting individuals and companies in control of the data they generate. The Commission, in its European Strategy for Data, has set out its vision for data that underpins a digital future benefiting everyone.
¹ Siegele L., (20 February 2020). A deluge of data is giving rise to a new economy, The Economist.
² The OECD defines data “as an infrastructural resource that can be used by an unlimited number of users and for an unlimited number of purposes as an input to produce goods and services”; OECD (2015). Data-Driven Innovation: Big Data for Growth and Well-Being, OECD Publishing, Paris.
³ Martens B., Duch-Brown N., (2020). The economics of Business-to-Government data sharing, European Commission JRC11994, Seville.
⁵ ‘FAO and Telefónica to boost use of cutting-edge digital technologies to assist farmers in developing countries’, 12 February 2017, FAO News, 2017, http://www.fao.org/news/story/it/item/1099923/icode).
⁶ Verhulst, S., and Young A., ‘The potential of social media intelligence to improve people’s lives’, GovLab Report, 24 September 2017, The Governance Lab, 2017, https://www.thegovlab.org/static/files/publications/social-media-data.pdf).
⁷ Data Task Force, on Data for Road Safety website (https://www.dataforroadsafety.eu/data-task-force); ‘On our way towards connected and automated driving in Europe’, 15 February 2017, Government of the Netherlands, Amsterdam, 2017, (https://www.government.nl/documents/leaflets/2017/05/18/on-our-way-towards-connected-and-automated-driving-in-europe).
⁸ Data Task Force, on Data for Road Safety website (https://www.dataforroadsafety.eu/data-task-force); ‘On our way towards connected and automated driving in Europe’, 15 February 2017, Government of the Netherlands, Amsterdam, 2017, (https://www.government.nl/documents/leaflets/2017/05/18/on-our-way-towards-connected-and-automated-driving-in-europe).
Alberto Gago Fernandez
The information and views set out in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the European Commission.