26 October 2022

Harnessing data for the public good: What can governments do?

By Alejandra Finotto and Pablo Fuentes Nettel

We live in a world with 4,901 million internet users, where nearly 5,000 million emails are sent in a year and where people spend more than 3 hours of their day navigating social media platforms. At the same time, emerging technologies, such as AI and machine learning, have facilitated how we capture and process information from the real world in areas like human behaviour and climate. These processes have led to an increasingly digitalised world where immense amounts of data are consumed, exchanged and generated every minute.

As these flows continue to increase, data becomes a central topic in the global agenda. From our daily lives to global financial transactions, data is having a clear impact. Our everyday decision-making might be influenced by a Google search, whilst trends in the global stock market might be affected by predictive models based on data analytics. Such an influential phenomenon, of course, implies both risks and opportunities for societies. And, amid this scenario, public institutions play a critical role in governing data effectively.

In the first place, the intensive use of data by companies, government bodies and other organisations has raised serious concerns about topics like privacy and security. In that sense, government action has become critical to addressing these issues and fostering a responsible use of data. Regulating the use of personal information with mechanisms like data protection regulations or incorporating Data Loss Prevention solutions in government systems are examples of how public bodies can mitigate these risks.

On the other hand, data is generating enormous amounts of value. Today, 5 of the top 10 biggest companies by market cap are tech firms that are somehow involved in the commercialisation of data. Similarly, just the big data global market is expected to grow to 103 billion USD by 2027 —more than double its size in 2018. There is no doubt that data has the potential to produce value. Yet, it is not clear how much of it is directed to public purposes. Here’s where governments can play a key role. There are a few ways in which public bodies can harness data to have a positive impact on people’s lives and address some of the most pressing global issues like climate, inequalities and public health.

Consequently, governments have two main duties when it comes to data: mitigating risks by ensuring its responsible use and extracting value from data for public purposes. In this blog post, we will focus on the latter, by exploring three main areas that exemplify how governments can harness data for the public good. These categories are evidence-based policy-making, open data and data institutions.

Evidence-based policy-making

The use of data has accelerated the pace of change when it comes to citizen’s needs and how services operate. In that vein, governments must be innovative and adaptive. However, they are only able to do so if they have the necessary tools to design, implement and monitor public policies. Luckily, living in the era of data also means that there is more information available. In other words, data can be a big ally for governments to tackle some of the most pressing societal issues through evidence-based policy-making. To clarify this a little bit, let’s think of a hypothetical case where a local government aims to incentivise the use of bicycles to reduce carbon emissions.

Before actually building the programme, the policy team in charge needs basic information to guarantee its feasibility, like how many people know how to ride a bike or how easy it is to own a bike. They would also look for more specific data to know the environmental impact of other means of transport in comparison with cycling. Additionally, they would need to use data to anticipate risks like the lack of cycle-friendly streets. Once they have designed a feasible policy and anticipated risks, they would move on to the implementation phase. And, for that aim, they might need statistics on demographics, economic indicators and geographic data to know how to approach citizens and generate engagement. Finally, the policy team would need to be constantly monitoring the effectiveness of the programme by extracting data on key figures like the increase in the use of bicycles or the decrease in carbon emissions. This information would allow the government to know whether the policy is effective and where to adjust in order to maintain the programme in the long run.

This is just a simplified example of how data is present in every step of the policy life cycle: design, implementation, monitoring & evaluation and maintenance. A government driven by evidence and the use of data is more likely to identify user needs, mitigate risks, engage effectively and adjust when something is not working. Consequently, the exploitation of data in policy-making can lead to the creation of better policies, and hence contribute towards public value creation.

Open Data

Another effective way to harness data’s potential is to promote a culture of open data within governments. Open data has the potential to increase citizens’ trust in government policies by increasing transparency, while also spurring innovation. But what exactly is open data? According to the Open Data Institute, it is ‘data that’s available to everyone to access, use, and share’. However, it is important to point out how making data available is insufficient. Data has to be reusable, easily accessible, and up-to-date, among other elements. The Open Data Charter principles are a good reference for governments regarding what good open data standards should be.

One of the biggest challenges that many governments face today is the lack of trust. On average, only 4 out of 10 people in OECD countries trust their national government. A way to tackle this problem is to make governments more transparent and accountable for their decisions. In that sense, open data is a powerful tool for public bodies to make information publicly available and more accessible to their citizens. This includes enhancing transparency in areas like procurement processes (who is winning government contracts and why?), policy design (why is a particular policy being pushed forward?), or government spending (where is my money as a tax-payer going?). Hence, by using open data, governments can enable citizens to have oversight  over government decision-making and policy design.

Making government information accessible through open data can also spur innovation by facilitating the creation of effective solutions. A good example is the open data initiative undertaken by Transport for London (TfL). This public body has made all data regarding public transport available to software developers —including information on number of users, disruptions, strikes, etc. This allows apps like City Mapper to suggest the most efficient travel routes to users based on real time data. In addition, open data has demonstrated to be useful to foster knowledge creation in times of emergency. For instance, during the initial outbreak of COVID-19, government portals sharing data about COVID-19 cases helped scientists track the evolution of the pandemic. By doing so, they were able to get a better understanding of the virus and come up with more targeted efforts to manage it.

Data Institutions

Besides from the previously mentioned areas, what are other mechanisms that governments can use to harness data for public purposes? Well, promoting the creation of institutions to govern data sharing within and outside the public sector is one of them. All agents within a particular ecosystem share challenges, yet they don’t always share data to address them. When actors cooperate to share data, they are more likely to improve the services they offer and co-design effective solutions to common problems. Furthermore, data sharing can bring together siloed departments within an organisation and foster trust between stakeholders by creating a sense of cooperation among them.

Theoretically, these premises sound pretty straightforward. However, in practice, it can be more complex. Data sharing works better when there is a clear governance framework that establishes specific roles, responsibilities and norms between the actors involved. That is why today we have a series of data institutions, designed to facilitate data sharing through better governance. Governments can promote the adoption of data institutions by either participating directly in their design or providing knowledge and standards.

Sharing data through these institutions can foster trust among different stakeholders and help preserve the quality, security, interoperability and privacy of data. There are a variety of institutions that can be implemented to address different user needs. We will focus on exploring three of the most common institutions: data commons, data trusts, and data marketplaces. These are mechanisms which have already been implemented internationally and have proven to be effective.

Let’s start with data commons. This institution is based on the idea of data as a common resource and is made up of agents that share data as equals —meaning that all actors have the same level of access to data. Recently, Oxford Insights collaborated with the Government of Colombia to design a data commons pilot for its agricultural sector, with the aim of connecting previously siloed government departments and increasing trust among actors. This can have multiple benefits. For instance, by aggregating data, these departments can make predictions regarding sanitary, agricultural, climatic or financial risks within the sector. This in turn can contribute to fostering the creation of new products or solutions by the private sector or the elaboration of reports and analyses by academia.

Another institution is data trusts. They are primarily a legal structure where individuals and organisations provide a trustee with the right to steward data on their behalf. This can be particularly useful when sharing sensitive or private data about individuals such as health-related data. A good example is the UK biobank. This is a data trust where health and genetic data is shared with approved researchers and scientists with the purpose of improving medical treatments and discoveries, proving that, if sensitive data is managed securely, it can contribute to carrying out evidence-based research in fields where it is desperately needed.

Finally, data marketplaces can create efficiencies in an existing data market. For example, a data marketplace can facilitate the commercialisation of data by providing one single online digital portal, by using a consistent approach to data valuation, or by enforcing market rules. This allows data holders and data reusers to obtain key information while monetising their own data. Governments can harness data marketplaces in a two-fold way: on one hand, they can act as ‘regulators’ of the market, ensuring that data is being sold and bought according to the rules set and learning from the experience of managing a platform as such. On the other hand, they can also use the opportunity to sell data themselves. Agrimetrics is a good example, as it is a data marketplace where UK agricultural public bodies can sell their data to other actors without losing their control or ownership over these datasets. Governments should take part in these initiatives, albeit never selling private or sensitive data.

Looking forward

The increasing relevance of data is ambivalent by design. It poses challenges to governments in terms of regulating and setting standards around its use, but it also presents opportunities. As we can see from the examples mentioned above, there are several ways in which public bodies can extract value from data and use it for the public good. This is not an exhaustive list of examples, but a compilation of government initiatives that have been proven to be useful and beneficial already in the international arena.

Governments must use this momentum to continue looking for ways in which they can harness data to enrich people’s lives. The success of existing policies should serve as an incentive to continue investing in public innovation to unlock the potential of data, always keeping the citizen in mind and being purpose-driven.

Are you interested in harnessing data for the public good? Feel free get in touch at info@oxfordinsights.com


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