The case for ethical data sharing

The Tragedy of the Commons

The tragedy of the commons is an economics theory by Garrett Hardin, according to which individuals, acting independently and rationally according to each one’s self-interest, behave contrary to the whole group’s long-term best interests by depleting some common resource.

Some economists have long warned us about the Tragedy of the Commons. This is a situation where a shared resource becomes depleted over time, because it’s in everyone’s best interests to exploit the resource to their own advantage, but to ignore the long-term effects on the resource when everyone does that.

The classic examples of Tragedies of the Commons are overgrazing of common pastures shared by different sheep and cattle farmers; and overfishing of international waters.

In both examples, individuals are rewarded by maximising their use of a common resource. For example, a fishing vessel will maximise its profits by maximising its fishing catch. However, over time, the commons becomes depleted, because everyone is acting that way. The common resource reaches a tipping point and collapses, at which point everyone suffers.

Data sharing doesn’t work like that

Data, Information and Knowledge are not like the commons above. In fact, the more we pool our data, the more information and value we extract. And if we contribute those insights back into the common pool, its value grows. This “Data Commons” is never diminished, only enhanced, and its potential is maximised when many people are able to contribute and use it. The first step in establishing some kind of data commons is having data exchange platforms. Data Republic believes these platforms need to be open, secure, well-governed and ethical.

Open: An open data exchange is transparent: the rules are clear, and apply to everyone. That’s why all participants on the Data Republic platform are signatories to the Data Republic Participation Agreement. This is a common set of rules that everyone agrees to abide by. It is a single, unified data sharing governance framework. Contributors and Analysts are not locked in to an exclusive relationship with Data Republic.

Secure: Data shared should only be made available under the conditions required by the data contributor, with rigorous enforcement and oversight of the data use. Data exchange platforms will have to meet bank-grade levels of security to protect not just the data, but the intellectual property and hard work of the data scientists using it.

Well-Governed: Data sharing needs to be well governed. For Data Republic, this means ensuring correct, ethical, and defensible decision making is happening amongst participants who are exchanging data. A proper governance system sets the rules of engagement when it comes to dealing with data, and has mechanisms for detecting and dealing with issues as they arise.

Ethical: Data sharing must be ethical. That is to say not only must it be of some benefit to society, but it must also avoid doing harm. A major area of concern for Data Republic is personal privacy. A well-run data exchange platform must ensure individual privacy is protected. This is about more than just anonymising data careful action must be taken to eliminate the risk of re-identification of anonymous data by combining additional datasets.

Why bother?

The enormous potential of Big Data, machine learning, and data science, is limited only by access to the data required to make it work. No one organisation has sufficient data to address its analytics needs on its own. Beyond this though there is an enormous opportunity to utilise data sharing for public good.  Corporations can already gain astounding value from collecting rich data about their customers to inform their product development and marketing activities. However, that same data can be used to tackle the social problems affecting our communities. By exchanging data, companies can join together to uncover insights that open up remarkable possibilities to improve the way social organisations provide their services or attract support. Ultimately, as Forbes summarises, sharing data can also be an opportunity for doing well by doing good.

Wikipedia: Tragedy of the Commons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons