The flow of data: sharing information responsibly

​'Data is the new oil': a phrase that has shaped the attitudes of organizations for a long time. But with an increasing focus on privacy, particularly in light of regulations such as the GDPR and other data-privacy laws around the world, is it time we started thinking about data differently?

Jeni Tennison is the CEO of the UK's Open Data Institute (ODI), which argues for the responsible sharing of data by companies and governments, and she believes that organizations' viewing data as a commodity has contributed to the debate on personal information that we find ourselves in today.

"Organizations have been told to think of data as something they need to hold," she says. "But this is wrong. They should be thinking about how data can help them achieve their goals – which might mean sharing the data or not collecting it at all."

A survey by the ODI in 2019 revealed that just 30% of people trust central government to use personal data ethically; for utilities it's 18% and for social media companies a mere 5%. People no longer feel they have control over how their data is used.

One of the solutions is increased data rights for individuals, but Tennison points out a flaw with this argument. "Data is rarely about a single individual," she says. "My DNA says something about my family; my health data contains information about doctors and nurses; and my social media feed is about my friends."

Tennison uses the example of taking a satellite photo to improve land productivity: "Can you really ask the consent of every farmer? Thinking in terms of individual data ownership is not the best approach," she says. "It's impractical and disregards our interests as citizens."

This is why the ODI advocates a 'rights framework', taking the onus away from individuals and instead encouraging organizations to take responsibility for how they treat the data they are using.

By doing so, companies can also distance themselves from two additional data issues highlighted by Tennison: personal data stores and exchanging data for money. A cohort of startups want to help individuals gather data held about them in one place, so they can share it on their terms with other organizations they trust. Tennison doesn't believe data needs to be kept in a single place. She is hopeful, however, that the 'data portability' component of the GDPR – currently one of its least explored components – will go a long way in improving the way we share data. Nor does she think we should be trading data for cash: "That would lead to a world in which privacy becomes a luxury that only some people can afford."

Tennison isn't suggesting that data shouldn't be considered valuable. But by simply shifting the way organizations think about data, we should be able to achieve what Tennison calls "the balance of rights between people, communities, companies and government".

Related content: Jeanine Vos, GSMA, on Big Data for Social Good