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At the ODI, we think data institutions have an important role to play in bringing about a future where data is used to drive positive economic, societal and environmental impact.

By ‘data Institutions’, we mean organisations that steward data on behalf of others, often towards public, educational or charitable aims. Some examples that people might be familiar with are UK Biobank, OpenStreetMap and OpenOwnership.

In 2020, we established a data institutions programme to bring about new data institutions and improve the practices of existing ones. So far, we’ve undertaken research to explore how they can be made more sustainable and to understand the potential of data trusts as a particular type. On the practical side, we’re working with the INSIGHT Health Data Research Hub – an emerging data institution – to design and run a data governance process that involves the public, patients and other stakeholders, and our stimulus funds are bringing together cohorts of would-be data institutions and providing them with funding and other support.

From what we’ve seen so far, data institutions emerge in different ways and there is a wide variety of journeys of development for them. Some might come out of work between a coalition of organisations who see the need to cooperate for example 360Giving which helps organisations openly publish grants data to improve charitable giving. Others might develop like a startup – an idea spearheaded by key individuals and developed through small initial investments from funders – HiLo and the OpenApparelRegistry have emerged like this in their respective sectors. Data institutions in the public sector, such as national statistical offices or mapping agencies, have been formed by legislation and government investment.

The types of data which these organisations are responsible for stewarding can vary widely, as can the role the organisations play in their ecosystems. However, we have a hypothesis that there are similar needs across many data institutions and there is an opportunity for the ODI to provide infrastructural support to meet them.

In other data and open source software communities there are precedents for organisations like the ODI providing infrastructural support. For instance, the Open Collective runs a hosting scheme that collects and holds money on behalf of nascent projects and initiatives so that they don't have to worry about accounting, taxes, etc. Some also provide extra services – the Linux Foundation has a range of ways that it assists the development of code and communities including neutral ownership of assets, providing stock policies and undertaking administrative work to build communities. Some of the services these programmes provide might be useful to data institutions. We think there are also other support services that are more specific or specialised.

At the moment we’re taking a very broad definition of what infrastructural support the ODI could provide to data institutions, which we’re calling ‘hosting’. It could include providing financial and other backend services; being mentored by members of the ODI team with relevant expertise,; developing and maintaining technologies and tools to support data collection, use and sharing; and providing access to legal advice and other specialist services. We also think that a hosting activity could help to channel philanthropic funding into the hands of people, communities and organisations trying to build new data institutions.

Is this type of infrastructural support something that your organisation might be interested in, or do you have experiences in this type of activity that you’d like to share? If so, please do get in touch. We’re currently testing a number of propositions with active data institutions and are keen to shape this with the support of the community. If you’d like to have a chat please email Jack Hardinges or Ed Parkes  and we’ll be in touch.

More about our Data Institutions programme