Data Privacy Discussion MyData blog: How the ODI is helping shape our data conversations and build a coronavirus ecosystem

Data has become integral to everything we all do – as Renate Samson, Senior Policy Advisor at the Open Data Institute (ODI) puts it, it’s become part of the infrastructure of life.

The ODI looks at the full spectrum of data, from closed datasets with a high level of sensitivity around them, to shared data, where there is value from access, as well as open data, which is “the data about us and society that can bring benefits to society as a whole”, be it from better decision-making or insights to a wider distribution of opportunities or a range of apps around a particular purpose.

This last point is very pertinent to the current pandemic, where the route out of lockdown, for societies across the globe as well as the individuals which make up them, is very firmly tied to collecting and analysing data.

Senior figures at the ODI quickly realised that the organisation is well placed to use its capability, experience and knowledge in this area to help people who are suddenly collecting data to try and assist, from organisations and start-ups, to businesses and local and national government. 

If, as Renate explained, our route out of lockdown is bumpy, moving in and out of restrictions, data in many areas, not just health, has an important role to play. For example, if children are being home-schooled, parents may want to know when the local library is open, and also when it is busy. If the over-70s need to stay broadly isolated from the rest of society, they may want to know if there is an OAP hour too. More broadly, unlocking data is going to be really critical to helping people plan the changes needed in how we move around society, as well as how products and services adapt, as we live within the confines of  social distancing for months or even years to come. Big tech players, too, may have a role to play in opening up data they hold to help here.

So the ODI, in association with Luminate, the global philanthropic organisation helping empower people and institutions to help shape the issues affecting their lives, put out a call, asking organisations and businesses whether they had any data that could be made open, and explaining that the ODI could help. Almost 100 have got in touch so far.

The aim, Renate says, is to understand what’s out there, and also to educate through conversations, so businesses, government or organisations can begin to understand the value of what they already hold, and how they might be able to put that to use. This last point is partly connected to ecosystem mapping – the ODI can help companies and others understand who the actors are in their space, as well as the data that they and others have, which they might want to access. The ODI also has an ethics canvas, “because a lot of these conversations have an ethical dimension to them”.

Amid the pandemic, many data-related capabilities that have been “discussed for, in some cases, decades, are now happening very quickly because the need is there.”

This sudden realisation of the many ways data can help decision-making is a positive but still requires education and appropriate procedures in place, especially in areas such as transparency, proportionality, data rights and data protection. All areas, Renate stresses, that “innovation has to work with, not seek to change behind the curtain”.

In terms of MyData, Renate says there are crossovers with the ODI’s work – and that conversations about different types of data are important so that people can make more informed choices. Things like data portability, she said, are currently principles in the GDPR but not very clearly defined – they show great possibilities, but are very much a work in progress. Independent governance of data also remains important, it’s “almost about acting as a middleman. There’s not really a one-size-fits-all, even down to how we engage individually”.

A lasting data-related positive to come out of living through this pandemic is, Renate says, that we will all become more literate and more educated about how we see and understand data and its possibilities as we live more of our lives on screens.

Ultimately, she says: “The more we can make data open, the more we can get people hands-on with it, interrogate, learn and build things on it – this is about having all of our lives improved.

“Hopefully the future has some brightness in it.”

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