Who owns our data infrastructure?

Data infrastructure is as important as our physical infrastructure – so how should it be governed?

A robust data infrastructure will reduce friction in the economy, increase interoperability, collaboration, efficiency and productivity in public and private sectors, nationally and internationally. The right data environment will benefit everyone, but we are yet to have a truly open debate about its benefits and risks.

The internet has connected us in ways we couldn’t have imagined. Countries can respond quickly to its citizens’ needs, businesses target resources and compete in global markets, and communities share ideas.

Like our transport and energy infrastructures, many groups have convened to create the web of data. Some see data as a new raw material, fuelling economic growth and improved services; others see it as a means of building trust in transparent governments; and some see the impact of the web over the next 25 years dwarfing its impact during the past quarter of a century.

We need to discuss who owns our data infrastructure, what roles the public and private sectors should have, and what role we as citizens play

Governments, businesses and communities plan our essential physical infrastructure, and we should treat data as a core asset. As our physical and digital worlds combine, we need to plan our data infrastructure not just for a healthy digital economy, but as part of a healthy country. If we want the UK to be ‘brilliant at the internet’ as Baroness Martha Lane-Fox, co-founder of Lastminute.com, recently called for, we must look at data literacy as part of our future.

Diverse businesses already use open data from both public and private sectors. Our research recently polled 270 open data businesses in the UK, with a combined turnover of £92 billion and 500,000 employees. Half use open data made open by other businesses.  Embracing this culture of sharing, both formally and informally, helps grow sectors and, if harnessed using the power of the web, can enable peer support to influence returns radically for everyone, improving operations, customer interactions, supply chain efficiencies, and the quality of products and services.

But this is not just about government or business. We need to discuss who owns our data infrastructure, what roles the public and private sectors should have, and what role we as citizens play. How might it be governed and what are the social contracts between each of its users, given that the web is already global and our data is already almost entirely privatised, often by companies outside of our borders?

Equally, organisations have to be a credible, authoritative and sustainable source of the data they manage. They need to act responsibly and responsively to user-needs, and be transparent about their sources and management. And, organisations that use data must be able to adapt to shifting political, competitive and social contexts. It is far more efficient for organisations to design for open systems first and apply restrictions, than to design closed systems and worry about secure integration later.

Last month, at the International Open Data Conference in Ottawa, we initiated a global discussion to prompt governments and organisations to engage in this critical topic.

It’s time we took our data infrastructure as seriously as our physical infrastructure.