What is a data trust?

Tue Jul 10, 2018
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A data trust provides independent, fiduciary stewardship of data

Data trusts are an approach to looking after and making decisions about data in a similar way that trusts have been used to look after and make decisions about other forms of asset in the past, such as land trusts that steward land on behalf of local communities.

They involve one party authorising another to make decisions about data on their behalf, for the benefit of a wider group of stakeholders.

With data trusts, the independent person, group or entity stewarding the data takes on a fiduciary duty. In law, a fiduciary duty is considered the highest level of obligation that one party can owe to another – a fiduciary duty in this context involves stewarding data with impartiality, prudence, transparency and undivided loyalty.

There are lots of ways to steward and govern the sharing of data, and other types of ‘data institution’ – this is just one of them.

Although data trusts are a fairly new concept and a global community-of-practice is still growing around them, there are some existing examples of independent, fiduciary stewardship of data in the wild. For example, UK Biobank was set up in 2006 to steward genetic data and samples from 0.5m people and takes the form of a charitable company with trustees. In more recent years, ex-ODI startup OpenCorporates has established a separate entity with independent trustees to help safeguard the organisation’s mission, and Facebook has experimented with using a non-charitable trust to create an external board to make decisions on the removal of content uploaded to its platform.

Looking to share data?

Data trusts are only one way to do it. Take a look at data institutions to find other ways to share data in a trustworthy way .

At the ODI, we’re interested in ways of increasing access to data to maximise its societal and economic value, while limiting and mitigating potential harms. Data trusts represent an approach to stewarding data that can support this mission, which is why we’re experimenting with them in practice and conducting research into their theory.

Read more about the ODI’s work on data trusts…