Aapti Institute: Data Economy Lab

Aapti Institute
Aapti Institute
Published in
7 min readMar 2, 2021


By Suha Mohamed

Cognizant of the assymetries present in our rapidly expanding data economy that further perpetuate existing injustices, Aapti Institute supported by Omidyar Network, is thinking about a new social contract for data. We have set out to address this by exploring alternative forms of data governance to rebalance inequities in the data economy.

Our vision — Making data governance work for us all

We established the Data Economy Lab (DEL) in 2019, to think through questions around Data Stewardship, a paradigm of governance that can unlock the societal value of data, empower users/communities to participate in data decision-making while preserving privacy and rights.

To build equitable, accountable and just processes and apparatuses for data sharing, we decided to adopt a solution-led and collaborative approach to our work.

Building blocks for responsible data governance

The Data Economy Lab

Our initial research and analysis of existing stewards aimed to both define and highlight the variation in the data-sharing ecosystem, which we released in a report: Understanding Data Stewardship: taxonomy & use-cases.

In early 2020, witnessing the necessity for secure, privacy-preserving mechanisms to share data, particularly for public health applications, we deep-dived into use-cases to explore opportunities for stewardship on-ground. We theorized how data stewardship could transform mobility, shape safer and more inclusive cities, support collective bargaining and digital self-determination and serve labour migrants’ interests.

This culminated in our first expert discussion series: Data Deliberations, where we engaged in conversations with leaders to explore the opportunities and challenges of how the value of data can be unlocked, distributed, and used in the public interest.

Moving from theory to practice

Towards the end of the year, our work shifted to explore how stewardship could be meaningfully pursued in practice. Based on our conversations with existing models, we realised that while there is significant interest around stewardship, there are currently limited resources to help translate this on-ground. Our analysis of the landscape also indicated that this gap has often resulted in a duplication of efforts.

To address this, we have decided to create a tool to aid anyone who is interested in learning about stewardship to access reliable information, based on existing case studies.

For this, our methodology has been two-pronged :

We started to build the foundation for this tool by creating the ‘Explorer’ — a repository of over 100 existing models that steward data. Since then, we’ve reached out to an additional 80+ organizations, companies and initiatives across the globe to derive learnings, experiences and discuss challenges that emanate from responsibly stewarding data.

Based on our research, we’ve classified models by considering their function and general governance approach. Common models that have emerged based on these definitions include:

Our early insights from interviews have helped us further articulate both their core stated purpose and identify potential groups of core beneficiaries they aim to serve.

Learnings & Open Questions:

Our primary research has helped us in establishing a greater understanding of the sector-specific challenges and concerns around data sharing and stewardship, but several questions remain that we continue to explore:

Who are or will be the guardians of our data? DEL has focused on identifying stewards that either directly or indirectly pursue social value/benefit. While the structures of how these entities are constituted vary, an important question and challenge for many are to assess how these business models can be sustained. This is critical to ensure stewards are incentivized to uphold individual or collective interests and not be vulnerable to unconsented data brokerage as a means of survival.

Image source: Canva

How do systems build trust in data sharing processes and agents of this process? Across sectors and stakeholder groups, the lack of trust in data-sharing has been well-documented. Coupled with the inability to understand the inherent or potential value for data — incentives for participating or sharing in the data economy can be complex.

How can the trust-gap be bridged? Breaking silo-isation and promoting collaboration through demonstrating value, creating incentives and building channels for participatory governance have emerged as strategies.

What can a consultative, public process of data sharing look like? At DEL, we’ve been considering channels for engagement and participation — how could this be embedded within the governance framework? Data Cooperatives have emerged as models that demonstrate promise in this area.

Image source: Canva

How do we make room for decision-making input from the individual or community? What needs to be considered to enable the interaction of people from marginalized groups? Across the world, non-profits and businesses and are testing methods to give users a tangible way to exercise their preferences on how their data is used and shared. Stewards strive to ensure individual and community interests are represented and upheld through substantive consultation with impacted communities, and by requiring requests to users for data re-use.

How can consent be structured meaningfully without imposing an undue burden on individuals or communities? For consent to be informed and explicit, there is a fine balance of providing necessary knowledge and context to users without overwhelming them. Similarly, consent fatigue can arise when users are frequently requested to provide consent. To overcome this, organizations are establishing simple consent dashboards or in-app toggles or assuming a greater ‘duty of care’ by requesting a broader blanket consent after consultation.

What are the necessary safeguards to ensure privacy and rights aren’t compromised? A combination of security measures (firewalls, secure servers/office environments) and data protection mechanisms (encryption, de-identification/anonymization, identity management) are frequently cited by organizations as effective solutions. Consulting with experts to build these measures into governing and operational protocols may be key to ensuring their compliance.

How can data be made accessible and portable for communities? To start with, identifying and translating the value of data while being aware of varying data literacy may be challenging. Organizations that have made strides toward this often work hand-in-hand with communities to better understand data needs through audits, active consultation and other forms of participation.

Are there opportunities to leverage existing community infrastructure to instantiate stewardship? While capacity and technical know-how may have to be solved for, collectives or unions, for instance, already possess the structures and existing frameworks to enable democratic decision-making.

How do we create channels for upward and downward accountability? Compliance mandates require organizations to consider embedding measures for transparency and to protect users rights, usually through accountability to authorities with supervisory power, but there is scope to consider other mechanisms to strengthen downward accountability — to individuals and communities.

Looking forward

By the end of the year, DEL expects to develop a breadth of knowledge and expertise through continuing to interview and build a repository of stewards globally.

Creating communities of concern

Through the Lab, we’re also working together with partners to create broad awareness and mobilize support around a shared understanding of the importance of data stewardship.

We’ve launched the Data Governance Deep Dives in collaboration with Digital Commons Network, a series of closed-door events that bring together practitioners, researchers, academics, and other experts working on models to harness the value of data with the aim of redistributing power in the digital economy.

Committed to understanding how to implement stewardship, we are also in the early stages of working with Microsoft Research India and community-based organizations in thinking through relevant protocol and technology to power stewards in mobility and agriculture.

Amplifying narratives

We’ve also started to highlight a few case-studies through our new video series, Tracking Stewardship. In conversation with practitioners and founders of models, this series aims to showcase their vision, experiences and challenges with stewardship first-hand.

Our first two videos showcase how individual/collective value, agency and control of health data can be unlocked and primed for secondary re-use.

If you’re part of or know of examples of data stewardship that you think we should speak to, please write to us at contact@aapti.in

To learn more about our work, visit www.thedataeconomylab.com



Aapti Institute
Aapti Institute

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