Stefaan Verhulst Articulates Key Takeaways from the Launch of the Data Stewards Network

Olivia Clark — June 15, 2018

Following the launch of the GovLab’s Data Stewards initiative last month, Network chief of research Stefaan Verhulst shared a new piece on Medium sharing lessons learned. The article, “Data Stewards: Data Leadership to Address 21st Century Challenges,” provides an overview of discussions held during a kick-off event hosted by the Cloudera Foundation.

The kick off event featured representatives from companies including Linkedin, Facebook, Uber, Mastercard, DigitalGlobe, Cognizant, Streetlight Data, the World Economic Forum, and Nethope, sharing insights on the value potential of establishing well-defined, professionalized data stewardship roles and responsibilities within corporations.

Verhulst identified four central takeaways – at the nexus of opportunities and challenges” – that surfaced during the event: maturity, transaction costs, scaling, and community of practice.

Maturity: Attendees pointed out that the field of data collaboratives is fledgling, still ill-defined, and that this poses certain challenges to more widespread adoption.

In particular, awareness among the public at large is limited, which leads to ambivalence or even outright suspicion. Corporations themselves also often don’t appreciate the value of sharing data (or, like the public, remain skeptical), which similarly limits the amounts of private data that are shared or made available for the public good. There often exist confusion or a lack of understanding on how to pursue the aims of public good in the context of a profit driven business model.

In addition, conference attendees pointed out that both holders and recipients of data often lack the requisite skills or resources to adequately use and maximize the potential of shared information. Increasing human and technical capacity — along with raising general awareness — is therefore critical to expanding the use of data collaboratives. More generally, the field requires more research, and a better, shared understanding of what works, and what doesn’t.

Transaction Costs: Conference participants also pointed to the high transaction costs (not limited to financial costs) faced by both sharers and recipients of data.

These can take the form of costs of preparing data; identifying and vetting potential partners; de-risking data (e.g., to ensure privacy); and of negotiating both the legal and commercial terms of sharing between participants.

Technical interoperability can also be an issue; data accessibility and usability remain key challenges.

Importantly, transaction costs are especially burdensome for small businesses and other entities that are often under-funded, or under-resourced in other ways. Eliminating or mitigating these transaction costs is therefore essential not only to more widely disseminating data collaboratives, but also to ensuring a level playing field that may widen the scope for innovation.

Scaling: Despite lessons learned from existing examples, it is often difficult to scale or replicate data collaboratives. What works in one instance frequently seems to be less successful in another. A promising small-scale sharing project may have trouble spreading its wings to include new and more data. These are all key issues to be dealt with if the potential of data sharing is to be realized.

In order to overcome these challenges, participants suggested the need for new unified brokerage platforms in which there will be mechanisms that could help groups find new opportunities or identify new partners for collaboration.

Pooling of efforts, expertise and experience is perceived as essential, especially for smaller groups that lack the necessary resources.

Overall, there remains a clear need for best practices and standardized pathways that can help guide small, incipient projects into larger, more successful — and more socially resonant — collaborations.

And finally, there is a need buy-in from senior leadership at the C-level — leaders with a mandate to make decisions and set direction — to embrace the opportunity, set an example, and take responsibility for leveraging data for public good.

Community of practice: Finally, there was broad consensus at the conference on the need for a well-established community of practice and expertise where current and future data stewards could share experiences and resources. Such an environment, which could take the form of either formal or informal structures, would offer a safe environment for practitioners to trade stories, tools and lessons.

Some called for the creation of a repository that would include a collection of existing MOUs, contract language, and legal frameworks, as well as a mapping of firms pioneering data uses for public good.

Furthermore, senior leadership from the private sector could assume ownership of such collaborations and recognize that the value of their data can be leveraged for public good without compromising their operational objectives.”

Read more here.