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Coronavirus shows how badly we need consensus on collective data rights and needs

ODC 2020–2021 strategy

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

by Ania Calderon

Earlier this year, we developed our new strategy which opened like this:

(Open data) transparency helps make governments more efficient and accountable, enable global collaboration, and tackle critical problems like public health, climate change, and corruption.

[…]

But the open data community has not sufficiently balanced its arguments for publishing information against other fast-evolving data rights and collective needs. [….] Data rights are presently too often placed in opposition when they should be seen as part of the same argument.

Like the rest of the world, we’ve gone back to our plans since the terrible human and economic tolls of the pandemic became clear. Seen through fresh, sad eyes, the questions and challenges we outlined seem more urgent than ever.

The rapid spread of this disease is exposing fault lines in our political and social balance — most visibly in the lack of protection for the poorest or investment in healthcare systems. It’s also forcing us to think about how we can work across jurisdictions and political contexts to foster better collaboration, build trust in institutions, and save lives.

Good data is a life and death question now.

As we said recently in a call for Open COVID-19 Data, governments need data from other countries to model and flatten the curve, but there is little consistency in how they gather it. Meanwhile, the consequences of different approaches show the balance required in effectively implementing open data policies. For example, Singapore has published detailed personal data about every coronavirus patient, including where they work and live and whether they had contact with others. This helped the city-state keep its infection and death rates extremely low in the early stages of the epidemic, but also led to proportionality concerns as people might be targeted and harmed.

Overall, few governments are publishing the information on which they are basing these huge decisions. This makes it hard to collaborate, scrutinise, and build trust. For example, the models can only be as good as the data that feed them, and we need to understand their limitations. Opening up the data and the source code behind them would give citizens confidence that officials were making decisions in the public’s interest rather than their political ones. It would also foster the international joined-up action needed to meet this challenge. And it would allow non-state actors into the process to plug gaps and deliver and scale effective solutions quickly.

At the same time, legitimate concerns have been raised about how this data is used, both now and in the future.

As we say in our strategy, openness needs to be balanced with both individual and collective data rights, and policies need to account for context.

People may be ok to give up some of their privacy — like having their movements tracked by government smartphone apps — if that can help combat a global health crisis, but that would seem an unthinkable invasion of privacy to many in less exceptional times. We rightly worry how this data might be used later on, and by whom. Which shows that data systems need to be able to respond to changing times, while holding fundamental human rights and civil liberties in check.

As with so many things, this crisis is forcing the world to question orthodoxies around individual and collective data rights and needs. It shines a light on policies and approaches which might help avoid future disasters and build a fairer, healthier, more collaborative society overall.

Our new strategy sets out several ways we want to help governments achieve this:

  • Help public officials understand and balance the inevitable tradeoffs between advancing accountability using open data, and protecting the rights of people and communities as they are designing policies and practices;
  • Help citizens to be able to see and influence what their public officials do, and to trust their institutions;
  • Ensure governments recognise the importance of data rights and address the impact of data abuses or inequalities, especially around advancing community wellbeing in key areas like corruption, gender, and climate;
  • Help governments openly and accountably manage challenges around uses of data, both by governments themselves and in the wider economy.

For more on the concrete steps we will take to achieve all this, please see the strategy itself.

As this crisis progresses from response to recovery, it will become clearer that this global problem needs to be tackled as a global community. International cooperation will be especially critical as countries are in different stages and have different measures in place.

Our focus on the need for a balance of rights seems salient here.

Data exists on a spectrum. Some should be open by default, some kept closed, and other sensibly shared.

This situation shows it is critically important that governments have clear criteria for which is which, and why. Individual privacy, security, and collective wellbeing should always be carefully considered and there should be exemptions to and ability to appeal any rules.

Only then will our data rights framework strike the balance which protects society as a whole, keeps power in check, and gives the vulnerable a seat at the table.

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Learn how we are working towards a culture of open and responsible data use by governments and its citizens.

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