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.
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…
- Our initial research published in July 2018 that found multiple, sometimes conflicting, uses of the term ‘data trust’
- A description of the definition we adopted in October 2018 to give our work on data trusts a focus and something to test
- The outputs of our work to apply data trusts in practice with the UK Government Office for AI in April 2019
- An update on our work in 2020 and some of the recent developments in the field of data trusts