Data sets are essential for the commercial success of a personal data-dependent consumer society where customization is key. Much-needed development of innovative solutions in health, education, the environment, and city management depend on data. Building national economic resilience and accelerate recovery depends on data.
While much of public discussion has focused solely on the debate of data privacy protection versus deregulation and economic productivity, data trusts (also known as data commons or data cooperatives) represent legal, technology-enabled constructs that allows for more equitable ways of sharing the profits among different stakeholders. In this structure, a relationship of fiduciary responsibility would exist not only with the shareholders, but also towards the data owners and producers, and where the data economy would happen “with people” instead of “to people”.
On Wednesday, August 12, 2020 at 12:00pm EDT, the Atlantic Council’s GeoTech Center hosted a panel of experts in the fields of data analytics, AI and data governance, neuroscience, engineering, and digital transformation that discussed practical steps to build and pilot data trusts. The panel included Michael Ingrassia, president and general counsel of Truata; Wally Trenholm, chief executive officer of Sightline Innovation; and Atlantic Council nonresident senior fellow Dr. Divya Chander, also neuroscience faculty chair at Singularity University. Dr. David Bray, Director of the GeoTech Center, and Mr. George Zarkadakis, Atlantic Council nonresident senior fellow and digital lead at Willis Towers Watson, moderated the discussion.
A new social contract
Participants in the panel first explained the value that data trusts adds to the marred public debate around data regulation and, especially, how these mechanisms could help protect the democratic systems in which we live, while successfully reducing the growing ethical, social, and economic tensions inherent in a world of technology-induced changes. Following that logic, Mr. Zarkadakis argued that data trusts “turn the table on the status quo” and introduces two game-changing ideas. First, data trusts separate the collection of data from its processing. Second, data trusts create a new form of governance around data collection, where the governance – a group of trustees or another form of a centralized administrative body – has a responsibility towards the data owners, unlike what usually happens in regular corporations, which respond exclusively to their shareholders.
The funding dilemma
With data trusts it is essential to recognize and unravel the dilemmas inherent to how a data trust operates and is funded. This requires answering: who owns the data? Is a data transaction irrevocable or can the ‘original owner’ recover it? If the latter is true, how can a data trust help carry out longitudinal studies?
Complicating the equation, Mr. Ingrassia explained that data are “both an asset and a contingent liability,” – unlike common currencies, the more data one gathers, the more that owner will need to put in place the necessary mechanisms and technology to protect the privacy and rights related to that data.
The panel also discussed how, when protecting data privacy and rights, companies or data trusts face two main decisions: do they limit their investment to comply with the applicable legal regimes, or are they up to a higher moral standard? And, how to build a data trust so that it is large enough that it works, but simple enough so that users have the necessary clarity to be able to exert their rights?
“Let’s start with non-profits”
Panelists emphasized the importance of determining who are the real beneficiaries of a data trust. Panelists emphasized that protection of privacy must happen throughout the data collection process and not as an afterthought. As a way to avoid misuse or abuse of collected data, the panel agreed it would be best to decentralize that data as it is being collected and then provide the access keys “to those we really trust”. With this same logic, the experts suggested a launching a data trust pilot with a non-profit as a first step.
Dr. Chander advised on educating public participants both on the data sources employed and empowering public participants to be informed regarding choices associated with data-related transactions. Dr. Chander insisted on the idea of data literacy, especially highlighting the sensitivity of biometric data, which often not only includes information about the source, but also the genetic codes of its family.
Meeting the global challenge of COVID-19
In addition to the debate around transparency and ethical responsibility, the panel also discussed the value of data ownership as means to facilitate accountability and enable ethical management of that data. These principles become even more important with the shock of the ongoing pandemic, and the additional opportunities and challenges that it brings to the data industry.
When asked, Mr. Trenholm highlighted how the greatest business opportunity before the hit of COVID-19 came from monetization of data assets — while the top tier companies make large profits from the data they collect, Trenholm believes there is still a large number of entities, ranging from hospitals, medical systems, or cable networks, that have a “direct relationship with the costumer”, but lack the technology to process and successfully exploit the data gathered. He strongly believes there is opportunity to build a collaborative framework between these entities, add financial value to their data assets, and make them attractive in the market.
The panel, however, agreed that, since the start of COVID-19, urgent need has arisen to increase collaboration between the different jurisdictions and stakeholders regarding data. Through the shared use of data, the aim is to leverage the health crisis to create better detection and proactive responses to waves of this and other disease outbreaks, while also finding solutions to large-scale unemployment linked to the disruption caused by COVID-19.
Data, a public good
A common goal in the debate around data governance is the idea of capturing the value of data trusts and empowering innovation, while protecting their privacy. To achieve this, Mr. Zarkadakis suggested thinking of data as a common good, as opposed to the idea of an individual’s asset often impossible to both track and tailor. During the event, he envisioned a future where data trusts both deliver value to society and enable stakeholders to share the profits associated with a data trust activity equitably. As an example, the experts imagined data trusts helping to generate revenue to fund basic income to support workers in the gig economy.
The panel further called on society to self-organize and claim its part in the data economy; they invited governments, social entities, businesses and entrepreneurs to lead the change, decide together what they stand for, build a legal structure, and find the way to solve the problems associated with technology-induced changes in the world.
Government budgets a shrinking, labor markets are turbulent, and concerns regarding privacy loss and excessive surveillance are growing. Liberal democracies will have to act soon, if they wish to prevail in the face of the growing, technology-induced pressures they are subject of – and piloting data trusts response a great first step to address these dilemmas.
We all can lead. Positive “change agents” — individuals willing to work across sectors and nations to help illuminate better ways through the shared turbulence we are experiencing — are needed now more than ever.
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