How to Make Data an Asset for Public Good?

The data collected, released, and produced by the government has the potential to be leveraged for social good, but concerns about privacy and citizen’s rights are paramount.

May 1, 2018 | By Hollie Russon Gilman, Senior Fellow & Ali Shahbaz, Student Analyst

As the open data movement continues to evolve, the role of Chief Data Officers and institutional design matters for the implementation of data-driven governance and decision making. However, it is not enough to think about the supply side of public sector data. We also need to think about the demand side. There are a few core components of this, which include engaging with civil society, training the next generation of public servants, and effectively working to equip individual citizens with data privacy and rights.

Data is an asset for civil society and philanthropy, which can play an intermediary role, something that Lucy Bernholz calls “digital civil society.” Established initiatives such as the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth are already building the infrastructure for data philanthropy. However, especially in smaller organizations, there can be capacity issues to ensure that data is effectively used and deployed. Civil society and philanthropy can also play a role to ensure that there is a conversation surrounding the normative value and ethics behind which data is released and for what social purpose. This requires civil society working together to collectively build tools and resources that address data security, stewardship and access — as Josh Levy & Katie Gillum recently wrote in Stanford Social Innovation Review. Because so much seemingly private information can now be easily accessed, it is essential for social justice organizations to collaborate in order to ensure that one organization is not inadvertently jeopardizing other missions.

Second, in order for the public sector to effectively leverage data there needs to be training and a recognition within institutional structures that data is a catalyst for internal decision making as well a public asset for people, business, and society. Building an architecture of innovation, which we have written about at the Beeck Center, helps create a structure to ensure better institutional design between the core pillars of governance. There are serious legal and cultural challenges to effectively sharing data across agencies and different levels of government (e.g. state, local, and federal). In addition to modernizing software we also need to equip public servants with a range of skill sets, including upskilling current public servants with data and tech literacy training. San Francisco and Kansas City, in addition to the Department of Commerce, have already launched their own “Data Academy Programs.” Any of these initiatives also requires high-level political leadership and air time.

Finally, how can we make data an asset for citizens? There is enormous amount of value in the data that citizens hold and generate (both individually and through social networks). The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), scheduled to take effect in May 2018, demonstrates a path toward reliable online privacy balanced with transparency. The GDPR is the first legal bill of rights for personal data. One of the most exciting aspects of the GDPR is the concept of “data portability,” which empowers consumers to have a clear record of their personal data so that they can choose if and how they want their data to appear. GDPR also offers the “right to be forgotten” — if someone wants their data removed from an app or company, now it is a possibility. There is no doubt that regulatory instruments like the GDPR will be a milestone in standardizing best practices for data transparency, ownership, consent and sharing. However, there will be interesting questions about if and how the U.S. responds and what the role of other institutions will be to comply.

The data that people hold will continue to be extremely valuable. There may be opportunities for leveraging individual data for the public good, such as in the Human Genome project. However, its implementation requires an individual and institutional understanding of data usage, protection, sharing and integration. Throughout all these conversations it is essential that questions of equity, digital access, and digital literacy are placed front and center. Without the regulations to retain and protect people’s data, we run the risk of growing digital inequality in our already deeply unequal society.