Solving complex challenges by widening access to data: perspectives from a roundtable discussion

Mon Jul 12, 2021
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We recently brought together experts from the public and private sector to discuss the challenges and opportunities of building data access initiatives to tackle social, environmental and economic challenges

We recently brought together experts from the public and private sector to discuss the challenges and opportunities of building data access initiatives to tackle social, environmental and economic challenges

What are data access initiatives?

To tackle complex challenges, from climate change to creating sustainable supply chains, we need to build open, trustworthy data ecosystems that stimulate innovation.

Data access initiatives aim to address a specific challenge by increasing access to data between organisations that can tackle it collectively. The scale and design of such initiatives can vary greatly, but they have three core features:

  • a community of data holders, data consumers and those impacted by the collection and use of data
  • activities to build or strengthen the data infrastructure in ways that build trust between all parties involved
  • a governance structure to ensure a shared vision, strategic direction, maintenance and long-term funding.

At the Open Data Institute (ODI), we have supported and run a number of data access initiatives. For example, we facilitated the development of the open banking data standard, we’re working with Sport England to tackle inactivity through the OpenActive initiative, and we ran a stimulus fund to support and explore the foundations needed for successful and sustainable data institutions and data access initiatives. We’ve captured our learnings so far from these projects (and many others) in the Data Landscape Playbook to help other organisations design and deliver data access initiatives. 

Roundtable: Stimulating innovation with the right data access initiatives

On 7 July 2021, we held a roundtable with experts from the public and private sector to discuss the challenges and the opportunities of such initiatives, and the different ways to instigate the change. We were joined by representatives from DCMS, CDEI, Barclays, Pinsent Masons, WPP and Arup.

We discussed the benefits and challenges of two different approaches, the role of the different stakeholders in instigating data access initiatives, and how the ODI can support them along the way. 

Key discussion points from the roundtable

Contrasting approaches

We identified two approaches to data access initiatives: 

  • In ‘top-down’ initiatives, certain organisations are required to participate in the initiative by opening, sharing or using data. This requirement comes from an organisation that has the power to direct a certain behaviour or action in an ecosystem, such as a regulator. 
  • In ‘bottom-up’ initiatives, participation is voluntary and open to all. These initiatives gain momentum by creating a strong community that is aligned and committed to solving a specific challenge in the ecosystem. 

Strengths of a top-down approach: 

  • There’s a strong incentive to participate, even when use cases and benefits for participants are still being refined
  • Required participation can be necessary when private sector organisations don’t have any direct benefit that would motivate them to invest in the initiative voluntarily (eg when the goal is to create social impact)
  • They bring trust and credibility in the data exchanged, which is particularly important for data access initiatives focused on sharing personal or other sensitive data

Strengths of a bottom-up approach:

  • They are effective for creating the culture change needed to increase data sharing and use across sectors and within organisations
  • They encourage the community to identify and explore new use cases that fall under the broader challenge the initiative aims to solve
  • They can demonstrate early traction and evidence of value to encourage government or other organisations to mandate wider adoption and involvement

Challenges

Interestingly, both approaches to data access initiatives face similar challenges. For example:

  • Creating compelling stories to attract buy-in and demonstrate the potential value is particularly challenging during the early phase. It’s therefore important to allow some time to create them.
  • Building a clear picture of what datasets exist and which organisations could create impact if they had access to the data can be difficult, particularly in ecosystems that are quite decentralised and lack existing collaboration. The ODI’s Data Ecosystem Mapping tool can help with this.
  • Building trust that data will be shared and used responsibly is often a blocker for organisations to join data access initiatives. Creating a strong governance model that can build trust often helps overcome this challenge.
  • Finding a long-term sustainable funding model for the data access initiative while building enough evidence of value is often a struggle. A strong governance structure with engaged members can help create a unified vision and identify the appropriate funding sources for it. 

Something that emerged distinctly during the discussion is that neither of the two approaches will fit all data access initiatives. As we explored this in a recent blogpost, to succeed, initiatives will inevitably need to combine aspects of both approaches. The bottom-up approach will help get buy-in and commitment at a community level, while the top-down approach will stimulate wider adoption and accelerate the adoption rate.

The role of stakeholders

Roundtable participants agreed that it’s vital to involve the people who are impacted by the publishing and use of data. Examples shared at the roundtable included patient groups, and co-developing open data standards.

Attendees highlighted the importance of government to set a vision for the role of data in unlocking innovation, for example through the UK government’s recently published National Data Strategy, which represents a unique example of government leadership in this space. In turn, UK government representatives called for more understanding of how, once the vision is set, the government can encourage action ‘on the ground’ to create the right frameworks and spaces to build strong data ecosystems and stimulate innovation. 

Universities and institutions like the ODI were seen as neutral and trusted organisations that could act as data stewards (organisations responsible for the collection, maintenance and sharing of data), to add credibility and trust to a data access initiative.

Who should fund data access initiatives?

Representatives from the private sector advocated for looking beyond ‘pure ROI’ in order to secure funding for a data access initiative from within a company. For example, demonstrating how the data access initiative contributes to a wider company goal, such as Microsoft and its commitment to tackling climate change and becoming carbon negative.

This perspective was also mirrored in the public sector. As part of a new phase of OpenActive, Sport England is exploring how to align the initiative with its overall 10-year strategy for the sport and physical activity sector to help secure OpenActive’s long-term relevance and sustainability.

From a regulator’s perspective, financial sustainability is a question of accountability. A regulator has the mandate to require companies to share data, and take on the cost. But when doing so, regulated companies need to have confidence about who will use it, and the potential to create wider value.

Get involved

These are just some of the highlights from the roundtable discussion. You can watch the conversation in full here.

As part of our data ecosystems and innovation programme of work, we’re looking to speak to organisations involved or keen to create data access initiatives. If your industry or sector faces a complex challenge that requires an ecosystem to tackle but you don’t know where to start, don’t hesitate to get in touch. We’d love to be able to discuss how we can help you get it off the ground.