Unlocking the value of data
28 April 2011
This article was first published in Data Protection Law
& Policy in April 2011
According to the World Economic Forum, personal data will
continue to increase dramatically in both quantity and diversity,
and has the potential to unlock significant economic and societal
value for end users, private firms and public organisations alike.
This statement by the Swiss organisation behind the prestigious
annual Davos meeting summarises its stance on the issue of personal
information as an asset. Let's forget for a second the idea of data
protection as a fundamental right and look at it as a tool to
maximise the economic and societal value of data. Perhaps the
big thinkers at the Forum are up to something.
Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum published a paper
called "Personal Data: The emergence of a new asset class" which
looked at the current personal data ecosystem and suggested a
number of actions aimed at making the most of it. The Forum's
premise is that the full potential of data lies in creating
equilibrium among the various stakeholders influencing the personal
data ecosystem. In other words, a lack of balance between
stakeholder interests - business, government and
individuals - can destabilise the personal data ecosystem in a
way that erodes rather than creates value. Therefore, the paper
explains that to achieve this balance, positive steps are needed
across five distinctive areas.
The first one is innovation around user-centricity and trust.
The idea is that personal data should be shared in a way that
allows all stakeholders to trust the integrity and safety of the
data. According to the Forum, offering more transparency on
how personal data is used and educating users on the benefits of
trust will significantly strengthen trust among all stakeholders.
In practical terms, the key action to achieve this is to integrate
data protection principles into the development of new services and
platforms through the concept of privacy by design.
The second area is not a new one for those involved in legal
compliance - the divergence in regulatory frameworks and the
establishment of global principles. Privacy-related laws
differ significantly across jurisdictions with different cultural,
political and historical contexts. This has a number of
downsides including the increased costs associated with
compliance. Therefore, although the Forum acknowledges that it
is unrealistic to hope to develop globally accepted standards and
frameworks while national and regional versions are still in
significant flux, establishing an international dialog will allow
for more rapid harmonisation.
This is linked to the third area - the need to strengthen
the dialogue between regulators and the private sector. Whilst
self-regulation in the area of personal information protection may
not be the answer, it is important that regulatory authorities are
made fully aware of the technological advances so that they can
adopt 21st century digital policies. This is absolutely
critical in the European Union at a time when the regulatory
framework is under review.
The fourth area focuses on a technological aspect - the
need for interoperability and open standards. The reason for
this is simple. If the highest potential for economic and
societal value creation lies in the aggregation of different
personal data types, the implication is obvious: data should be
portable. To enable the seamless sharing of personal data across
organisational borders, the Forum lists the following technical
requirements: common communication standards and system
architectures, accepted personal data terms and definitions, and
standard interface design specifications.
The final area highlights the dynamic nature of this
issue. For the Forum, it is crucial that stakeholders
continuously share knowledge. Interestingly, the key component in
this knowledge sharing exercise will be a central gatekeeper within
each organisation who actively contributes to the personal data
dialog. That person's competence would not only include
privacy, but also encompass a business development and strategic
perspective. And that is precisely the essence of the World
Economic Forum's thinking around personal data. Unlocking the
value of personal data is about balancing privacy and economic
development so that everyone, absolutely everyone, can win.