Data institutions play critical role in solving global social problems

Nigel Shadbolt, co-founder of the Open Data Institute, argues that a new breed of data institutions have a key role to play in unlocking the social and economic value of data

The Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated that tackling global challenges requires access to data from across the public, private and third sectors. 

Effectively collecting, using and sharing data on a global scale is playing a vital role in helping governments, businesses and communities respond to the pandemic. The GovLab’s Living Repository of collaborative projects shows organisations coming together to share information on all aspects of the crisis, from infection rates to personal protective equipment (PPE) availability, movement in cities to economic impacts.

The projects show that we need the right data, the right rules to govern its use, the right technologies to support it, and a diverse set of people, organisations and communities to be involved in working with it.

Data institutions – organisations that create and maintain this data infrastructure – are an important part of making this work.

Although the term may be new, there are many important data institutions that have been around for a long time. One of the best-known examples is UK Biobank, a charity that was established in 2006 to steward genetic data and samples, and make them available under specific conditions for health research and development.

The data is available as an open access resource to those undertaking health-related research for the public good.

Half a million people were recruited to donate samples and data to the UK Biobank for analysis, providing a powerful resource to further our collective understanding of a range of diseases from cancer to dementia, and improve the nation’s health outcomes.

Some data institutions, like UK Biobank, protect sensitive data, while others play different roles. In the maritime sector, an organisation called HiLo has recently emerged to bring together data generated by about 3,500 ships globally to carry out important risk and safety analyses on their behalf, related to incidents such as lifeboat accidents and engine room fires.

OpenCorporates maintains the largest open database of corporate information globally, on nearly 200 million companies, and is committed to supporting its use for the public benefit. Open Apparel Registry does the same for data about clothing factories, and 360Giving for data about the grants given by philanthropic funders. Anyone can access, use and share this data – increasing both transparency and the potential for innovation.

If we are to unlock the true social, economic and environmental potential of data, we will need more data institutions, playing an ever wider set of roles, in the future.

This is why the ODI has started working with other organisations to develop the next generation of data institutions. This includes the Insight Health Data Research Hub, one of seven supported by Health Data Research UK, to involve the public, patients and other stakeholders in deciding how the health data it brings together is used and shared. A new partnership with Microsoft will see us support its commitment to create 20 new data collaborations and institutions by 2022.

With more than 1,000 people signed up for our first event on data institutions this week, there is enormous interest around the topic.

This month, the UK government published its National Data Strategy for consultation. The strategy outlines the government’s intention to support the UK by increasing both the availability of data, and the skills and knowledge to use it responsibly, and has pledged to address the barriers to data sharing to better understand the world around us and enable more informed decisions based on data and evidence.

In our response to the consultation on the National Data Strategy, we will be emphasising the importance of an open and trustworthy data infrastructure and the role of data institutions in helping to build and maintain it.

Nigel Shadbolt is the principal of Jesus College, Oxford, chairman and co-founder of the Open Data Institute, and Professorial Research Fellow in the Department of Computer Science at Oxford University.

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