Changing the Data Governance Ecosystem – through narratives, practices and regulations

23 January 2020 | Reema Patel

Today the Ada Lovelace Institute launches Rethinking Data a programme of research and public engagement that will understand and evolve new data narratives, and learn from international data access and data partnerships – to inform best practice and create regulations that strengthen data rights.

Thanks to advances in the development of data-driven technologies, we now have unprecedented opportunities to unlock the social value of data. Data could now truly function as a common resource and a public good with transformative power for communities and society.  

For this to be possible, we must first acknowledge and address the often significant power asymmetries at play, and the privileged access that those who use, deploy and gather data often have. They are privileged because they are able to gather (often very large volumes of) data, and are also able to build data infrastructures to support their ability to gather, and then use/deploy that data. This puts them into a relationship of power with those individuals, groups and communities who the data relates to, and so generates a set of responsibilities and obligations.

To establish some terms, we call this a relationship of ‘stewardship’, and we call those who have that privilege (in both the private and public sectors), ‘data stewards’.  

At the Ada Lovelace Institute, we are aware that the use of the collective pronoun ‘we’ can be problematic. Who really is ‘we’? Data and how we deal with it is a question that can only be decided collectively, by society at large, so it’s important that the ‘we’ is not a fictional construction of homogeneous voices, composed exclusively of those who are in a privileged position. It must recognise that some voices are more heard than others, and ensure that those who are less heard are centre stage. 

How can Ada do this with the greatest possible impact within the resources that are available to us? Our answer is threefold – through changing narratives, practices and regulation, working with many partners in the landscape.  

Firstlywe can take a rigorous and systematic approach to understanding existing narratives, and work to develop new ones through innovative public engagement, ensuring that new data narratives reflect a vision for public good.  Secondly, we can learn from, and develop existing evidence about great (and less great) data practices. And thirdly, we can ensure that data regulations keep pace with data rights – collective as well as individual rights, ensuring that they further values of  agency, diversity, equity, and solidarity. 

Changing data narratives: 

Our first area of intervention through Rethinking Data begins with changing narratives. Emerging discourses about data are all related to how we currently think about data.  The way we frame the debate and habitually talk about data (in apparently innocuous terms) conditions how we expect it to be stewarded and accessed. Narratives about data as the new oil, data as the new water, and data as the new bacon all implicitly invoke different (and often competing) connotations.  

Each comparison comes with implications. Some of these are more explicit than others, but all contribute to building a collective, societal understanding of what it is acceptable or unacceptable to do with data. If data is like water, then we think of it as a natural resource, rather than a social one. If it is like oil, then we think of it as extractable and commodifiable. 

Some metaphors have explicitly played into the discourse of data ownership, a model that has been extensively critiqued. But if the notion of ownership is problematic in the context of data, invalidating metaphors that imply it, what alternative metaphors can  help us articulate the agency we should have over data? Similarly, how do we account for the fact that economic value is  extracted from data? Mobilising the right metaphor means empowering one particular discourse as opposed to another. 

Through our data narratives work, we will understand the common metaphors and frames that are deployed to shape data as a concept. We will analyse and understand how prevalent narratives around data are formed as well as how they perpetuate, such as economist Robert Shiller’s recent study of how particular narratives can go viral and perpetuate. And we will develop a body of research that informs practical guidance on how best to reframe data so that it is accessible, open and more relevant. Ada will do so in a way that involves and engages those often most locked out of these conversations, including the public and civil society. 

Changing data practices 

Our second area of intervention, changing practices, will consider how best and most effectively data governance arrangements, such as data sharing, access and partnerships models (and their underlying infrastructure), currently contributes to – and in future, might be able to address – asymmetries of power. In some cases these power dynamics might be between public bodies and private sector organisations in negotiating data access partnerships. In others, they might be between bodies gathering and using data, and data subjects.  

In reviewing data governance initiatives, Ada will analyse their responsibilities and decision-making processes, how the mechanisms for data sharing and access that each governance framework has enabled have come about, contextualising them within their socio-political and economic context. We will consider the extent to which they have meaningfully engaged and involved data subjects in their approach to data governance. We will also examine what the driving forces for access and sharing are and the material infrastructure that is used for collecting, storing, processing and sharing the data. 

In our early scoping for this work, we were impressed by the Decode project, funded by the European Commission, as well as long established but often overlooked initiatives such as UK BioBank. Both are widely regarded as models of good practice (although by no means perfect, having encountered many barriers to widespread adoption and scale). We are keen to understand how best these barriers can be overcome. 

We also seek to examine, and learn from initiatives that have struggled to gain public legitimacy – such as the controversial Toronto Waterfront Sidewalks Lab project. And this work will also be informed by our wider public engagement work – for instance, our public deliberation and citizen juries in partnership with Understanding Patient Data examined what fair data partnerships in a health context might look like; and our joint findings with Understanding Patient Data are due to be published shortly.

Changing Regulations 

The third area of intervention focuses on changing regulations. Many organisations, such as the German Data Ethics Commission and the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office, have called for regulation in the context of different areas of application of data analytics. And the forthcoming EU White Paper on AI looks to build upon existing regulation such as the GDPR, but also the Regulation on the Free Flow of Data and the Open Data Directive. In the short time since the GDPR was adopted, developments in the use of data-driven technologies have already made some of its provisions insufficient, prompting debate as to what improved legal frameworks we will need over the next few decades that establish more effective mechanisms for rights and redress.  

To do this, we have convened an international working group composed of data rights experts, professionals working in the domains of law, human rights and economics to advise on our research and policy formulations. This working group will reconsider fundamental concepts that underpin the way in which we conceive of certain rights and how that affects how they are enshrined in the law.  Another task of equal complexity will involve considering questions concerning anti-monopoly regulation and their efficacy, human rights, and issues of social and economic justice. 

We are delighted that this working group will be co-chaired by Paul Nemitz, Principal Adviser to the Director General for Justice and Consumers at the European Commission, as well as Diane Coyle at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, Cambridge University.  They will be supported by a team of Ada Lovelace Institute researchers that will map the regulatory gaps, and support the working group in its deliberations about the most effective areas of regulatory intervention. 

Rethinking Data – our tripartite approach 

Each of these three areas of intervention – narratives, practices and regulation – are not only individually important but also are influenced greatly by the other two. Our practices often reflect our regulatory environment and our discourse. Our regulations are often shaped by the way we think about and talk about data, and our experiences of good and bad practice. And our narratives themselves seek to describe the way data is  used – often when the reality can be very far removed from the ideal. We are grateful to the many individuals and organisations across the global and national landscape who have generously given their time to shape the programme, and we look forward to working with a range of diverse perspectives in rethinking data. 


Find out more about the Rethinking Data programme

We have many questions that we wish this area of research to consider (and welcome thoughts on any others!). Some of these include the follow: 

  • What is necessary to build in a stewardship model?
  • How do different models relate to pre-existing physical infrastructures that have developed over time and to those that are purpose built?
  • How can we scale the more successful models?
  • Is it possible to expand their remits?

Get involved: contact the Rethinking Data team