Make data more accessible to benefit society

By Nuffield Foundation

The Value of Data – a new Nuffield-funded report by the ODI and the Bennett Institute for Public Policy – has been written to explore ideas around how to effectively and ethically utilise the potentially huge – but hard to quantify – value of data.

Led by Diane Coyle, Bennett Professor of Public Policy at Cambridge, and Jeni Tennison, CEO at the ODI, the project identifies the challenge f not knowing how data might be used by others or in the future. This makes it hard to quantify the potential value of data.

The report urges the government, the wider public sector and the research community to avoid creating conditions that might limit or prevent the use of data not only now, but in future. For example they should avoid creating complex and restrictive regulation around data, or granting exclusive ‘data access deals’ to data sets that have especially high value (such as NHS data) to private companies.

The report finds that access to data is intrinsic to its value. In general, the more accessible data is, the greater value it has, although this has to be balanced against risks to privacy and incentivising investment. Restricting access to data limits who can use it to develop a product or service, or who can interrogate it to make decisions.

The report calls on policymakers and researchers to take specific action to:

  • Limit exclusive access to public sector data. Selling exclusive access to public sector data can sometimes provide a short-term financial gain but more open access usually provides greater long-term benefits.
  • Explore mandating access to private sector data. In some instances, say the authors, private sector data can be of great societal benefit. A case where this might be true, for example, is with the maps and geospatial data held by tech companies. Policymakers should look carefully at priority policy areas where mandating access to privately held data could enable innovation, competition and growth.
  • Provide a trustworthy institutional and regulatory environment. For example, creating intermediary organisations like data trusts to enable data sharing might provide a route to distribute both costs and benefits.
  • Simplify data regulation and licensing. Complex and overlapping regulation and intricate licensing schemes create uncertainties that hold back organisations from using and sharing data. Existing regulation should be simplified, new regulation should be coherent, and clear guidance should be provided.
  • Use competition policy to distribute value. Big incumbent companies currently capture a large proportion of the value of data as private profit. They can invest in collecting and using data and in specialist skills. However, preventing them from using data to provide valued services would be counterproductive. The report recommends using competition policy to open data-driven markets to other providers.

Report co-author and economist Diane Coyle says: “Given the slow growth in living standards and the uncertainty facing the economy, it’s more important than ever for the government to ensure the UK takes advantage of the potential offered by data. This includes the public sector publishing and sharing data, to enable the innovation and growth we need to compete on the global stage. The Budget must contain significant investment to ensure that high-value public datasets are maintained to the best possible standard, and made as widely available as possible. Data is a key economic asset – a new form of infrastructure – so we need policies to make the best possible use of it while safeguarding privacy.”

ODI CEO Jeni Tennison says: “Trying to place a value on data presents us with a challenge because data is often used out of sight and we can rarely predict how it might be used in the future. Unlike oil, data can be used again and again and data sets that might not be valuable today can become so tomorrow, as new collaborations, technologies and science develop. What’s really important is to avoid creating conditions that might limit or prevent the use of data in ways that could potentially generate value. For example, governments should avoid creating complex and restrictive regulation around data, or granting exclusive ‘data access deals’ to data-sets that are seen as particularly valuable”. 

Catherine Dennison, Welfare Programme Head at the Nuffield Foundation says: “We welcome this new report which interrogates how we value data and highlights the potential societal benefits of making data more accessible. The Ada Lovelace Institute – established by the Nuffield Foundation – is embarking on a programme of research and public engagement that will explore some of these issues further to inform best practice and create regulations that strengthen data rights.”

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