Monday, October 27, 2014

The Tension Between Those Who Have Data, and Those Who Need It

By David Sessions

In recent weeks, experts from all over the world have come together to solve some very vexing issues relating to the use of data by private institutions, public agencies, and civil society.  As the sheer volume of data collected begins to mount, and myriad sources of new data come available, questions emerge about who should have access, under what conditions, and what role the data owner has in governing its use.  In most cases, individuals are unaware their data is being even being collected and used without permission.  But data has significant utility in solving social issues such as disease containment and eradication, poverty, government service delivery, and even the creation and timely provision of commercial products, so the issues must be resolved.

The Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (Stanford PACS) recently hosted a conference with over an hundred participants on the topic of Ethics of Data in Civil Society.  At the conference, scholars, activists, policy makers, and funders considered the implications of how data are collected, stored, and disseminated, then suggested specific actions that would promote access to data while maintaining individual rights.  Policy that governs data in both developed and emerging markets were tested through working small working groups and active discussions with the entire conference.  The conference produced several actionable ideas, university courses, and even a potential for a startup company to evaluate algorithms used to analyze data.

Given the number of conversations taking place in other venues on the topic of data ethics, the problem is growing and is exacerbated by a wide diversity of policy.  Some policies restrict the use of certain data under any circumstances, and the liability for misuse or loss remains with the data collection entity, regardless of how or where the data enters the public domain. Meanwhile, policies provide little or no protection for the individual, much less any control.

Search engines, mobile phone companies, financial institutions (largely through payment accounts like debit or credit cards), and social websites all collect behavior and transaction data.  As access to the Internet becomes more ubiquitous, the responsibility for the ethical collection, access, and governance of data will only increase.  These issues are complex, and the solutions will require unprecedented collaborations across political and geographic boundaries.  Those with the most power in this conversation are those who profit from data, and they must take the lead in providing solutions whether through the execution of an active Corporate Social Responsibility program, or because they understand that by improving the lives of all global citizens they create larger addressable markets for their products.

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