data institutions

Over the past decade, how data is collected, maintained and shared – or stewarded – has become a topic of significant interest.

Stories like Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s role in personal data being used for political advertising have made us aware of the impact that irresponsible data stewardship can have on us as individuals and societies. From an economic perspective, it’s clear that access to data will play a fundamental role in developing and delivering modern products and services. Seven of the eight largest companies in the world by market cap are technology companies that offer services predicated on the collection, use and sharing of data. We also seem to have come to terms with the inherent politics of the web and the data that flows around it – ‘not a monolithic architecture whose existence and form are guaranteed in perpetuity, but a fragile and contingent construction... subject to evolution and political pressure’.

In response, we’ve seen governments and other policymakers begin to think deeply about how to steer the stewardship of data towards their goals, priorities and values. The European Commission introduced the GDPR in 2018, and has more recently set out the Data Governance Act, which looks to stimulate economic growth through industrial ‘data spaces’ and promote a human-centric data economy via new ‘data altruism organisations’. It is in this context that the UK Government set out its National Data Strategy in 2020. In its response in May 2021 to the consultation around the strategy, the government recognised the role of data institutions in ‘unlocking the value of data held across the economy’.

Data institutions are organisations whose purpose involves stewarding data on behalf of others towards public, educational or charitable aims. At the ODI, we have been researching, advocating for and actively supporting data institutions over the past year. A big part of this work involves better understanding how policymakers, funders and other parties involved in a data ecosystem can create an enabling environment for these types of organisations. We were pleased to see the National Data Strategy commit to ‘create an environment that supports existing data institutions in the public, private and third sectors’.

We’re conscious that this environment already exists – we’re not starting from scratch. In this post, we explore how the UK Government already supports data institutions. Our observations fall in two categories: vertical interventions that have focused on creating data institutions in particular sectors, areas or towards particular challenges; and horizontal interventions that have focused on creating more general supportive conditions.

Vertical interventions

One of the most obvious and direct ways that governments can support data institutions is through grants and funding, in particular financing the early stages of data institutions before they are able to create more sustainable long term and diverse revenue models. One area that is advanced in its thinking about good data stewardship and funding of data institutions is the health sector. Several data institutions have received large, long-term government grants, such as UK Biobank back in 2014 and Our Future Health in 2021. A related intervention is the creation of HDR UK, which itself ‘births’ new data institutions such as the seven Health Data Research Hubs and the International Covid-19 Data Alliance (ICODA).

Governments can also help existing public bodies evolve to collect and maintain data, and act as data institutions themselves. Public organisations like Companies House, the Met Office and The National Archives are perhaps our oldest data institutions – in some cases they have existed to steward data on behalf of the public for hundreds of years. Where a different type of organisation is required, the government can mandate the creation of new data institutions. In finance, the Open Banking Implementation Entity (OBIE) was created through an Order by the Competition and Markets Authority to facilitate open banking through the creation of software standards and industry guidelines to increase data sharing to drive competition and innovation in UK retail banking.

Governments can directly support data institutions by using the data they steward. DemocracyClub runs a number of services providing essential citizen-facing infrastructure for elections, including the locations of polling stations and information about election candidates; The Electoral Commission pays to access this data.

Horizontal interventions

The UK Government has set direction and described its priorities regarding data stewardship. The National Data Strategy is an example of this. The interventions it explores cut across multiple sectors to affect the direction of data access, stewardship and usage in the UK. And there are lessons to be learned from other countries who are working on new ideas in this space, for example the Data Governance Act (DGA) suggests the creation of a formal framework for data intermediaries, including a voluntary accreditation scheme.

The UK Government can fund research and the development of infrastructure that supports the creation and prototyping of new forms of data stewardship and data institutions. In 2019 the Office for AI funded the ODI to pilot and assess three data trusts as a potential approach to increasing trust and access to data. The regulatory sandbox created by the Information Commissioner's Office supports organisations across multiple domains to create products and services that utilise personal data in innovative and safe ways. By funding prototyping and pilot projects, the government can support organisations as they experiment with innovative solutions to the challenges that data institutions face. But prototyping and piloting come with drawbacks of their own – short-term projects rather than long-term institution-building may hamper future progress, diminishing engagement, trust and support for a project that does not have its sustainability guaranteed.

Many organisations active in the UK’s data policy landscape, and that have developed expertise and knowledge around these topics, have been supported by the UK Government. Enabling organisations such as the ODI, The Alan Turing Institute and the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation to conduct research and practical projects around responsible data stewardship will help drive positive change. The data institutions programme at the ODI is partially supported by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), allowing us to research, advocate for and support data institutions.

What next?

Data institutions are already being supported by the government in a number of ways, but there is still space to go further and explore new policy interventions to advance the field.

This is an area we will be exploring within the ODI Data Institutions programme over the coming months. Later this summer, we will begin a project to understand what other options policymakers could use to create an enabling environment for data institutions. And we’d love for your input. If you have an example of a policy which has directly benefited data institutions, or you’d like to get involved further in this project, please get in touch.