Society uses data for just about everything. Every day we hear about different ways organizations collect data about us for marketing purposes, insurance decisions and improved delivery of social services. We also hear about data being used to deny home loans, set outsized bail and often exacerbate existing biases within our social systems. It’s no question that, good or bad, data drives decisions by large organizations, small nonprofits, government officials and everyone in-between.
Many government agencies are also experiencing the pains of governing how that data is shared, resulting in practices that are unsustainable, ineffective and not forward-thinking. There is a fundamental need to evolve these practices into a governance approach that balances the need to protect people’s data with the need to uncover opportunities to better serve communities through data.
As we head into 2020, it is already clear that a shift in how we make decisions with data is underway. The Federal Data Strategy Action Plan makes data governance processes a top priority. The California Consumer Privacy Act went into effect Jan. 1, 2020, requiring entities to fundamentally change how they handle data. And Congress continues to work on national privacy legislation that influences data governance standards, including nearly 10 bills under consideration for regulating the collection and use of personal data, individual consent, and even defining what constitutes personal data. Simply put, new data governance strategies are being developed and policy improvements are driving this conversation.
At the Beeck Center, I spent the past year leading a research effort to gather best practices and lessons learned on data sharing. In partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation, I hosted collaborative discussions with multiple stakeholders and practitioners, conducted independent research with dozens of organizations, companies, and government teams, and drew on my nearly 20 years leading data practices to create Sharing Data for Social Impact: a Guidebook to Establishing Responsible Governance Practices.
Thankfully, we aren’t starting from scratch as many government agencies have well-established use cases for sharing data in pursuit of improved social service delivery in areas such as K–12 education, public transportation and health care. For example:
- In 2017, Florida’s Broward County saw the number of children moving into their Kinship Care Program — where kids live with grandparents or other non-parental relatives — had increased significantly. To improve services for these kinship providers, the county took data from a variety of sources — the public schools, Department of Children and Families, Department of Juvenile Justice, and others — and worked with the community to create feedback loops on shared data, strengthening family outcomes.
As the amount of data and methods for collecting it increase, so have opportunities for drawing insights about society. Bringing together diverse data sources is crucial to ensuring that insights promote equitable growth. And as promising as data sharing is for improving societal outcomes, the analysis of integrated data (especially through predictive analytics) can easily repeat inequities learned from past service delivery. Contextualizing data analysis with methods used by social sciences and ongoing community engagement is crucial to ensuring data analytics do not replicate or worsen inequitable outcomes.
Through our research, we found three key phases critical to establishing equitable and sustainable data sharing governance practices for social impact. Our guidebook helps individuals and teams seeking a primer to better understand the key legal, technical, and cultural components to data sharing governance. The guidebook provides a holistic process detailing each phase and extensive resources to aid stakeholders.
Build the collective
Get everyone on board. Start with the policy problem. Identify stakeholders. Take stock of capacity, motivations, barriers and potential data solutions. Demonstrate value and reduce uncertainty to generate buy-in. Establish a minimum viable coalition and enshrine your shared vision in a charter.
Define the operations
Get everyone in line. Create the governance framework tied to the charter. Design a feedback loop and integrate it into the governance framework. Formalize those two elements into a data-sharing agreement. Launch the operations of the minimum viable coalition.
Get everyone to improve and share. Re-evaluate assumptions, approach and metrics. Survey impacted communities and stakeholders. Use feedback loops to enact iterative improvements to the governance structure. Repeat this process until feedback becomes minimal. Scale up.
While data use can sometimes lead to harmful outcomes, what will never change is that data can, should, and will be used for good. Because data plays such a large role in society, it is imperative that organizations and governments use and share it responsibly. While there are resources out there to do this, our guidebook delivers the perfect framework with resources, advice and practical examples for tackling the complexities of data sharing going forward. We look forward to supporting organizations as they activate the lessons we captured and will continue recording and sharing good practices through that process.
Natalie Evans Harris is a Beeck Center Fellow and a sought-after thought leader on the ethical and responsible use of data after nearly 20 years advancing the public sector’s strategic use of data. Follow her on Twitter @QuietStormNat