Data trusts and trusting openness

Open Data Charter
Dec 19, 2019 · 3 min read
Stones forming a barrier or collaborative (depending on how you look at it). Photo by Zdeněk Macháček on Unsplash.

by Aimee Whitcroft, Open Data Charter board member

As humanity collects, stores, manages and uses ever larger amounts of data, it’s more important than ever to do it well.

It means sharing and opening data wherever possible, and using it to tackle the challenges facing our civilisations and our planet.

And that means sound data strategies and data governance.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Data trusts — a model for Aotearoa (pt I), I think that the coalescing concept of data trusts — and other forms of data collaborative — is a particularly exciting and potentially powerful way to do this.

When people speak about data trusts, I’ve noticed that they’re generally talking about shared data, as opposed to open data.

For the purposes of this post, shared data means closed data shared between specific groups of people, but not available openly / publicly. Open data, on the other hand, is data available to anyone, anywhere, anytime.

Both are important, and both have tremendous value*.

The conversation I’ve seen has generally conceived of them as a means to control where data goes, and who has access to it. But it’s not the whole picture.

Data trusts could be just as important for opening data, as for sharing data.

Distrust and closedness

There’s no shortage of research looking into the barriers to opening data. And there’s no shortage of barriers.

Many of them involve trust.

Companies don’t want to collaborate to open data, as sharing their data with each other could impact their competitive advantage.

Government agencies don’t want to open data, as they’re concerned it could make them look bad and / or damage their political capital.

Ministers and other senior leaders don’t want to open data, as they still view knowledge (and by inference, data) as power.

And groups of humans of all sorts battle, frankly, to share. A natural tendency to protect our territory often overcomes loftier notions of sharing, transparency, openness and non-zero sum games.

[Even though almost nothing is a zero sum game, many of us still insist on letting others persuade us that almost everything _is_ a zero sum game.]

And let’s not forget that we’re starting to share less and close more as we increasingly lose faith in organisations and their ability to behave well or in the public interest.

Trusted openness

Data trusts could help. Because the best way to build trust is to demonstrate it, not to ask for it.

Here, they’re not a means to control who has access to data. They’re a way to improve how we collect, store and release data. Think of it as looking at both ends of the pipeline, if you like. And yes, these effects are just as valid for sharing as opening data, too.

They’re a means to build resilient, transparent co-governance structures for data.

A way for companies to share data with a trusted third party who can then combine and release it.

A way for government agencies to share governance, responsibility, management and thus risk for opening data. And a way for them to co-develop the datasets they’re collecting and storing initially, and to help make the datasets as useful — and life-centred — as possible.

A way for Ministers and other senior leaders to let go of the whole ‘knowledge is power’ paradigm, realising that in sharing and opening data, together, they build a gestalt of data-related value.

And a way for all of us to be able to better trust both the source, uses and destinations of the data we need to tackle the crises we face. And so learn to share and collaborate more, in ways which build rather than destroy value.

Because we’re #bettertogether.

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Want to talk more about this, or other things data stewardship-related? Let us know at the Open Data Charter — we’d love to hear from you!

I’m also available for chats, consulting and general rabble-rousing. You can reach me through, or

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Originally published at on December 19, 2019.

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