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Jack Hardinges

Policy advisor at the Open Data Institute

Can new trusts unlock the value of data in the UK?

We benefit directly from data when it’s used by organisations to provide us with more effective or personalised services. This can range from a local authority deciding where to build a new school to Spotify offering us new music recommendations. Data is also used to develop new services or technologies, fuel research or support better decision-making. This is not new. Censuses have been used for hundreds of years to gather data about us to develop policies, run public services and allocate funding, and the data from them is made available in different ways to researchers and the public.

Of course, data also has the potential to be used in ways that are illegal, cause harm or make us feel uncomfortable. There have been concerns, for example, about the nature of the agreements that underpin the use of NHS data by organisations such as Google DeepMind.

Unlocking the value of data in ways that retain our trust and confidence is one of the critical issues that we face.

People are becoming more interested in the ways that organisational and legal structures affect how data is being collected, used and shared.

Data cooperatives such as MIDATA.coop are being formed to manage data on behalf of their members, who own and have democratic control of them. Elsewhere, the largest open database of companies in the world, OpenCorporates, has recently announced “a new corporate structure to provide a strong, long-term foundation for OpenCorporates now that it is becoming essential data infrastructure”.

Data trusts are emerging as part of this trend.

Historically, trusts have been used to hold and make decisions about assets such as property or investments. A data trust takes this concept of holding something – and making decisions about its use – and applies it to data. It is a legal structure that provides independent stewardship of some data for the benefit of a group of organisations or people.

In a data trust, the trustors may include individuals and organisations that hold data. The trustors grant some of the rights they have to control the data to a set of trustees, who then make decisions about the data, such as who has access to it and for what purposes. The beneficiaries of the data trust include those who are provided with access to the data (such as researchers and developers) and the people who benefit from what they create from the data. This could include innovative new services or research.

In this arrangement, the trustees take on a legally-binding duty to make decisions about the data in the best interests of the trustors. This is sometimes referred to as a fiduciary duty. Proponents of data trusts suggest that it is this duty that that would help to increase the trust that individuals and organisations have in the way that data is used.

Another motive behind establishing data trusts is to distribute the benefits of data use more equitably. In some cases the benefits could be monetary – for example a share in the profits generated by services created from the data. Other benefits would be indirect and difficult (or impossible) to distribute to individuals, such as the societal benefit of helping researchers understand how to manage mental health issues.

Data trusts could also be used in harmful ways. In the same way that trusts have been used to avoid taxes or to make it difficult to find out what’s going on, there is concern that data trusts could be adapted to try to conceal the profits generated by data or avoid data protection responsibilities. They will need to be transparent and work openly so that regulators and the general public can hold them to account.

Data trusts are still relatively new. At the Open Data Institute, we think they should be explored further. Over the coming months we will be piloting a data trust to begin to understand if they’re useful. Their role in enabling trustworthy access to data and unlocking its potential to benefit individuals, communities, society and the economy remains to be seen.

Jack Hardinges is a policy advisor at the Open Data Institute. He tweets @jhardinges