GovLab Blog Ideas Lunch

Balancing Act: Innovation vs. Privacy in the Age of Data Portability

Written by Vishala Pariag and Kajol Char

In the latest edition of the GovLab’s Ideas Lunch series, Jeni Tennison, the CEO of the Open Data Institute, spoke about data and data portability as a source of innovation for public services.

Tech-giants like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter have been in the news recently over several controversies around their data use policies. These companies are now collaborating on the Data Transfer Project which aims to make it easy for users to move their data in and out of platforms with ease. “Data portability” as it is called, gives users more control over their online data because access to data (open data, research data and personal data) is crucial to making the best decisions. Even beyond improving our individual lives, data portability can also positively impact business and public policy. At her Ideas Lunch talk at the GovLab, Jeni Tennison emphasized the importance of data portability but also alluded to its dangers. She spoke about data responsibility as a way to fully realize the potential of data portability without abusing its power.

Data portability is “the fundamental right of the data subject to move their information from one controller to another controller.” It forms the basis of open banking, the EU GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) and open APIs (Application Programming Interfaces). For example, open banking allows people to transfer information about their finances from one financial institution to another. It “require[s] banks to publish, both online and inside their branches, accurate and unbiased information that lets consumers evaluate their service quality, a move towards transparency designed to motivate banks to provide the best possible customer experience.” Benefits of open banking include customer knowledge of bank branches’ services and locations, ATMs, and access to real time credit scores. Tennison also spoke about Open APIs which provide the “ability for individuals and organizations to access data about themselves and share this with third parties.” According to Tennison, the EU GDPR, passed as recently as April 2018, lays out the right to data portability as one of its purposes.

However, despite the introduction of laws like the GDPR, there are still issues with data ownership. Tennison points out that giving people the rights to their own data may unintentionally infringe on the rights of others: data is never truly just about one person, it nearly always involves others. This calls into question our ability to balance the rights of one person to their data with the rights of others connected to that data. For example, if someone wanted to share their genetic data, should they actually have the right to do this, given that it might violate the rights of their family members, living or dead, who could claim ownership of this data, too? As Tennison said, “data is not just about you, it’s about lots of other people as well.”

These issues arise because data portability is such a new concept that effective security standards on the movement of data have not yet been established. Tennison referred to the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica Scandal of 2015 as one such instance in which people have lost control of how their data has been used as it has been transferred from one service to another. Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm, gained access to Facebook user data through the use of a personality quiz app called “This is your digital life.” Usage of the app granted Cambridge Analytica access to the information of users and those in their network. However, this was not truly informed consent as users were unaware of the implications that this would have on their data security. This information was then used to sway public opinion in favor of Donald Trump during the 2016 United States Presidential Election.

In order for us to capitalize on the positive potential of data portability, we need to first safeguard the ways in which we handle data to prevent abuse of such a powerful tool especially in public policy. Organizations that obtain data from others need to be transparent and ensure that the people who have given them access are aware of the consequences of their consent. Another thing to be taken into consideration is the responsiveness of organizations in sharing data because its relevance is time-dependent. Furthermore, for this data to be used most effectively to improve our lives, we need to establish interoperability through common standards for most data types.

Tennison stated that we should develop regulations that allow smaller organizations the opportunity to innovate and to make our markets work more effectively. The government needs to encourage innovation in businesses and sectors with less resources to even out the playing field. As Tennison put it, it’s about empowering the disempowered with the goal of “adjust[ing] the power relationship.”

You can read more about Open Data Institute’s work on data portability on their website at this link.

About Jeni Tennison

Jeni Tennison is the CEO of the Open Data Institute. She gained a PhD in Artificial Intelligence, then worked as an independent consultant specialising in open data publishing and consumption. She was the Technical Architect and Lead Developer for before joining the ODI as Technical Director in 2012, becoming CEO in 2016.
Jeni sits on the UK’s Open Standards Board; the Advisory Board for the Open Contracting Partnership; the Board of Ada, the UK’s National College for Digital Skills; the Co-operative’s Digital Advisory Board; and the Board of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data.


GovLab Blog

A hundred places where governments are using tech to crowdsource policy

This article was originally published in Apolitical on July 27, 2018. Available online here.
While many pay lip service to the aspiration of government of, for and with the people, few understand how participation can produce more than criticism and complaint. We live in a world beset with ever more complex urban and global challenges, where public expectations of what government should deliver have risen — from climate change, to ageing populations, to forced migration. Paradoxically, citizens’ trust in public institutions tasked with addressing these challenges is at an all-time low.
Redesigning our governing practices to solve the complex policy challenges of the 21st century and to repair the social contract urgently demands creating a two-way conversation between government and the governed. This will inject a greater diversity of information, innovative ideas and creative thinking into the law and policymaking process.

“New technology offers the opportunity for public institutions to learn from our collective wisdom”

At the same time, new approaches — the result of innovations in science and technology — offer the potential for improving the effectiveness and legitimacy of our institutions of governance. Governments at every level, for example, are using big data to pinpoint or predict anything from health issues to crime rates to mobility needs. New technology also offers the opportunity for public institutions to learn from our collective and distributed wisdom and experience and facilitate more informed but also more legitimate problem-solving. But we need more.
Enter CrowdLaw, the simple but powerful idea that public institutions work better when they encourage citizen engagement by leveraging new technologies. Tapping into diverse sources of opinions and expertise at each stage of the law and policymaking cycle can improve the quality and effectiveness of the resulting laws and policies.
Around the world, there are already many examples of local legislatures and national parliaments turning to the internet to involve the public in legislative drafting and decision-making.

“Public institutions work better when they encourage citizen engagement”

In Taiwan, the vTaiwan experimental e-consultation platform enables the broader public to participate in an ongoing process of problem identification. So far, 26 national issues, including the regulation of telemedicine, online education, telework, company law and Uber, have been discussed with over 200,000 people participating, a small but auspicious start.
In France, Parlement & Citoyens is an online platform that brings together representatives and citizens to discuss policy issues and collaboratively draft legislation. At the end of the process, a conclusory report explains if, when and how citizen input was incorporated into the resulting draft law. In the same country, Madame Mayor, I Have an Idea, is a participatory budget program through which Parisians can submit budget proposals online.
In Malaysia, Penang Hills Watch involves the public in recording cases of illegal hill clearing by developers. It enhances public awareness, and it fosters cooperation between civil society and the government in evaluating and improving current policy and enforcement. Observers take a photo of the activity and send it via WhatsApp or Facebook with a GPS location.
These technologies, especially big data and collective intelligence, have the potential to change how institutions learn, enabling cities in particular to govern with a much more granular and real-time understanding of on-the-ground conditions, in collaboration with the “bottom-up” intelligence of their residents.

“How can incentives be created for people to participate well, especially in a hyper-partisan climate?”

Yet, the value of citizen engagement as a strategy to improve effectiveness is not well understood. What tools, platforms and processes should be used and at what points in the process to improve the effectiveness of lawmaking? How to do so efficiently? How can CrowdLaw create channels for informing lawmaking without overwhelming politicians and their staff? How can incentives be created for people to participate well, especially in a hyper-partisan climate?
To help legislators and policymakers take advantage of public engagement at every stage of making laws and policies, The Governance Lab at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering developed the CrowdLaw Catalog, a compendium of 100+ real-world examples from 39 countries and six continents demonstrating how legislatures, parliaments, city councils and public bodies around the world are leveraging technology to involve more people in the process of governing.
It is a living repository and the first comprehensive collection of its kind. It joins a growing roster of CrowdLaw research and resources under The GovLab’s CrowdLaw initiative, launched in late 2017.
CrowdLaw implies rethinking democracy, from small to big, shifting our attention from the legitimacy of decision-making to its effectiveness. Engaging the public in law and policymaking also means asking citizens not only for their opinions but also for their expertise, ideas, actions and evidence. Let’s start now! —Victòria Alsina Burgués