Democratizing Access to Data is the Next Frontier in International Development

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We founded Future State last year to help equip policymakers with the knowledge and resources so that the digital age benefits the world’s poor and strengthens open societies, rather than undermines them. We believe this requires a relentless focus on developing policies and technologies that empower people to benefit from the data they are increasingly producing online.
Data Rich and Cash Poor
This is an especially urgent opportunity as we mark the milestone of half the world’s population having access to the internet. Unlike our experience in advanced economies, the next wave of people to come online will be “data rich” before they are economically healthy. Turning these new data assets into meaningful socio-economic  benefits is the next frontier in development.
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And yet despite this opportunity, the world is struggling to govern data equitably. The challenge is to reduce abuses of all kinds, enhance accountability and improve ethical standards, while also ensuring that the maximum public and private value can be derived from data. To realize the promise of the digital age, we need to be able to share data and reap its rewards as individuals and societies, not just as governments and corporations.
Personal Data Empowerment
That’s why we were particularly excited to host a discussion recently with four innovators from around the world developing cutting edge solutions to empower people and democratize access to personal digital data.
All of them are building systems and tools that will make data portability not just a conceptual right but a practical way to “unlock” personal digital data so that individuals have more control over how and by whom it is used in ways that both protect civil liberties but also expand the benefits of data-driven innovation.
While the approaches vary, all four initiatives share a common goal: shifting the power dynamics in the digital age to ensure that individuals share in the rewards.

  • Pramod Varma and Siddharth Shetty described India’s Data Empowerment and Protection Architecture, a set of technical specifications, policies and utilities that enable consent-based data sharing in regulated industries such as finance, healthcare, and education.
  • John Bruce described Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s Solid architecture, which aims to “decentralize” the internet, and Inrupt, its consumer-facing interface.
  • Julian Ranger presented me, a UK-based company building a user-interface that aggregates an individual’s own data and enables her to control with whom and how that data is shared. Last but not least,
  • Google’s Greg Fair described the Data Transfer Project, a consortium of technology companies building data interoperability tools to enable users to easily and securely transfer their data from one service provider to another.

Four common themes stood out as we listened to the discussion:
1. Share more data, not less.
Valid concerns about the misuse and/or theft of personal data by companies, governments and criminals have rightly led to a renewed focus on data privacy and the imperative to protect users’ personal data online. In response to these concerns, there is a growing push to create rules to “lock down” data in hopes that slowing down data sharing will improve privacy.
Though well-intentioned, this approach to “protect” data from misuse obscures the reality that for people and societies to truly benefit from the digital era, more data must be available to more audiences. So rules and systems that protect data are a necessary but insufficient to solving the problem; enabling people to safely share their own personal data is the real key to expanding the benefits of the digital era.
2. Giving people control of their data is key to “democratizing” the digital era.
Personal digital data is both an asset and a liability. Enabling people to control how their data is used and for what purpose is critical to maximizing the potential benefits and lowering the risk of misuse. Data offers insights that can improve decision-making at all levels, but concentrating control of data in the hands of private service providers limits the utility of the data.
3. Data portability drives competition.
Enabling people to port their personal data from one provider to another could help level the digital playing field for entrepreneurs by making available data that would otherwise be locked away for the exclusive use of the platform provider on which it was generated.
Personal digital data is the fuel of the digital age; restricting access to that fuel enables data dominators to crowd out potential competition. An thriving innovation economy will require equal access to digital data, and create incentives for providers to compete on the basis of the value they deliver to consumers.
4. Scale will require an interoperable and trusted ecosystem.
Cultivating a trusted ecosystem of actors will be critical to scaling data portability to the point where it begins to empower users – moving beyond single use cases and towards redefining power dynamics of the data economy. Building trust in the system ultimately needs to happen at two levels at a minimum:

  1. technical interoperability that normalizes variations in code and data format and
  2. common commercial standards that can build a trusted marketplace where incentives for services providers and consumers begin to align around data portability.

While some of the emerging models for enabling data sharing to empower people may compete at certain levels of service provision, they will all benefit from a more robust trusted ecosystem and all see a level of complementarity to their efforts. There is a need for collective action to move towards both technical and commercial standards to build a more dynamic ecosystem.
By Kay McGowan, Priya Jaisinghani Vora & Jonathan Dolan
If you’ve read this far, you really should RSVP now to join Future State for Cultivating Trust in a Data-Sharing Environment
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