Data Stewardship Re-Imagined — Capacities and Competencies

Stefaan G. Verhulst
Oct 8 · 6 min read

Presentation to the United Nations World Data Forum 2021; Panel on “Where to start first? — Identifying the leverage points of effective capacity development,” organized by PARIS 21

Presentation, UN World Data Forum

In ways both large and small, COVID-19 has forced us to re-examine every aspect of our political, social, and economic systems. Among the many lessons, policymakers have learned is that existing methods for using data are often insufficient for our most pressing challenges. In particular, we need to find new, innovative ways of tapping into the potential of privately held and siloed datasets that nonetheless contain tremendous public good potential, including complementing and extending official statistics. Data collaboratives are an emerging set of methods for accessing and reusing data that offer tremendous opportunities in this regard. In the last five years, we have studied and initiated numerous data collaboratives, in the process assembling a collection of over 200 example case studies to better understand their possibilities.

Among our key findings is the vital importance and essential role that needs to be played by Data Stewards.

Data stewards do not represent an entirely new profession; rather, their role could be understood as an extension and re-definition of existing organizational positions that manage and interact with data. Traditionally, the role of a data officer was limited either to data integrity or the narrow context of internal data governance and management, with a strong emphasis on technical competencies. This narrow conception is no longer sufficient, especially given the proliferation of data and the increasing potential of data sharing and collaboration. As such, we call for a re-imagination of data stewardship to encompass a wider range of functions and responsibilities, directed at leveraging data assets toward addressing societal challenges and improving people’s lives.

DATA STEWARDSHIP: functions and competencies to enable access to and re-use of data for public benefit in a systematic, sustainable, and responsible way.

In our vision, data stewards are professionals empowered to create public value (including official statistics) by re-using data and data expertise, identifying opportunities for productive cross-sectoral collaboration, and proactively requesting or enabling functional access to data, insights, and expertise. Data stewards are active in both the public and private sectors, promoting trust within and outside their organizations. They are essential to data collaboratives by providing functional access to unlock the potential of siloed data sets. In short, data stewards form a new — and essential — link in the data value chain.

At its broadest level, the responsibility of a data steward is to ensure end-to-end responsibility for the collection, storage, handling, and usage of data. This responsibility can be divided into three categories. Data stewards must collaborate responsibly to unlock data when there is a public interest case. They must protect stakeholders by managing data ethically to prevent harm and misuse. And finally, they must take action to ensure that insight is shared and translated into meaningful impact.

Re-Imagining Data Stewardship = Re-Imagining Data Responsibility

Collaborate: Responsibility to unlock data when there is a public interest case.

Protect: Responsibility to manage data ethically and prevent harm and mis-use.

Act: Responsibility to create public value by ensuring insights are shared and acted upon.

These three categories can further be broken down into five main clusters of competencies that define the role of data stewards:

  1. Data Audit, Assessment & Governance

This role requires that actors steward data assets for and in the public interest to monitor and assess the value, potential, and risk of all data held within an organization. This includes: helping formulate and determine policy questions; scoping and iterating assessments of “minimum viable” data needed for a particular purpose; identifying and documenting assets; considering the ethical and fundamental rights implications and other risks of using, or not using, data; and helping establish operational, technical and governance models to validate ways to measure impact.

Stewarding Data Assets for and in the Public Interest

Help formulate and determine priority questions (vis-a-vis Value Proposition or Problem Definition);

Scoping and iterating to assess “minimum viable” data needed to address the question or problem at hand;

Identify and document (meta) data assets;

Consider the ethical and fundamental rights implications and other risks of using (or not using) data;

Help establish operational, technical, and governance models that are “fit for purpose” and validate ways to measure impact.

2. Partnership and Community Engagement

In this role, data stewards are stewarding relationships to reach out to and vet potential partners while also informing beneficiaries of insights generated from data initiatives. Stewards become a point of contact regarding re-use of data and identify and engage with potential partners and stakeholders. Their work is user-driven, engaging with users of data products and insights, and helps establish social licensing for data re-use through community engagement and deliberations, which in turn inform data agreements and other contractual relationships.

Stewarding Relationships

Be the point of contact regarding re-use of data with internal and external partners;

Identify, map, vet, and engage with possible partners and other stakeholders;

Engage key stakeholders for data products and insights, in a user-driven process;

Help establish a social license for re-using data through deliberation and community engagement;

Establish data agreements and other contractual relationships

3. Internal Coordination and Data Operations

In order to manage coordination and establish data operations, data stewards must steward internal resources, expertise and authorities. This role focuses on internal relations to, for instance, gain approval from actors within the organization and coordinate with them to ensure that all stakeholders and organizational leaders are informed and aligned. The steward also engages in helping to establish data operations to map and match internal resources, expertise, and skills in order to enable data collaboration.

Stewarding Internal Resources, Expertise, and Authorities

Gain approval from and coordinate with actors within organizations;

Ensure all internal stakeholders and organizational leadership are informed and aligned;

Establish data operations to map and match internal resources, expertise and skills needed to enable data collaboration.

4. Nurture Data Collaboratives to Sustainability

In this role, data stewards work with stakeholders to gather necessary resources and support broad, long-term impact and the sustainability of data collaboratives This involves institutionalizing data innovation to make the re-use of data systematic; developing the business case to scale and sustain data innovation; and measuring impact and sharing insights to build a societal and business case for data collaboration.

Stewarding Sustainability

Make re-use of data systematic in order to institutionalize data innovation;

Develop the business case for data sharing and re-use by strategizing for scaling and sustaining data innovation;

Measure impact and share insights to build the societal and business case for data collaboration;

5. Dissemination and Communication of Findings

Data stewards act as the face of a company’s data projects and are responsible for communicating shared outcomes from data collaboratives to external actors. In this role, they are stewarding insights, and their responsibility is to raise awareness with users, partners, governments, and other stakeholders. They also communicate with actors on issues such as regulatory compliance and contractual obligations and help translate data intelligence into decision intelligence.

Stewarding Insights

Communicate to raise awareness of insights with users, partners, government and other stakeholders;

Enable the translation of data intelligence into decision intelligence;

Communicate with actors on issues such as regulatory compliance and contractual obligations.

These are the five key clusters of competencies for data stewards today. As the data ecology continues to develop and innovate, these functions will likely change, too. Understanding and defining the role of data stewards is and will remain an ongoing process. For now, the key task is to encourage the creation of data stewards within both public and private sectors as well as social impact organizations, helping to foster a broader ecology for responsible data re-use, especially through data collaboratives. COVID-19 has shown us many limitations and weaknesses. It has also helped identify opportunities, and a more systematic, robust, and responsible framework for data re-use is a key action policymakers can — and must — take in order to translate the vast potential of the data age into concrete and measurable public good.

To learn more about data stewardship, join us for our Data Stewardship Executive Course or join our Data Stewards Network at https://datastewards.net/

You can also access the full slide deck for the presentation here.

Data Stewards Network

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