Accessing privately held data for statistics - lessons learnt from the UN World Data Forum webinar

The European Union (EU) Data Act is the first large-scale attempt to regulate public sector access to privately held data for policy making purposes, with this blog post unpacking the Act. Back in April 2022, a UN World Data Forum panel discussion explored the key lessons learnt from the European experience in establishing data access rights for the public sector, how they can be relevant for National Statistical Offices around the world, and ,the implications of the Data Act globally. This event brought together speakers from the European Commission, representatives from National Statistical Offices (the Uruguay Instituto Nacional de Estadística - INE-Uruguay and Statistics Canada) and from the private sector (Dalberg Data Insights).

Here are key takeaways from the event:

  1. There is increasing discussion around public sector access to privately held data across all countries, due to the expectations and challenges faced by policymakers to produce better and more evidence-based policy responses. These expectations towards policymakers spill over to National Statistical Offices (NSOs) who as a result are requested to provide more timely, more granular and more accurate data than ever. Access to privately held data can help NSOs meet these goals but often, NSOs still struggle to access data held by businesses, especially when it comes to new types of data (i.e. Big Data, geospatial data). In this context, the Data Act will have significant impact as it serves to push more countries towards initiating or continuing discussions with the private sector on this matter.
  2. Not all countries need to adopt regulatory measures for public sector bodies to access privately held data. These measures can be effective solutions to localized problems but may not be needed when other frameworks and pipelines for public private collaboration on data sharing are in place. There is no one size fits all solution but rather a need for a case-by-case assessment of the obstacles for data sharing (i.e. lack of incentives, privacy regimes or other factors) and how to address them.
  3. Even when legislative approaches mandating data access are adopted, these rules are helpful but not sufficient on their own. They should always be accompanied by the following: establishment of new and improved processes within NSOs piloting of collaborative projects and further research into the topic of incentives for private stakeholders. The latter might vary as incentives are not universal but based on considerations surrounding the market and stakeholders.. Nonetheless, enabling the development of sustainable business models around public sector access to privately held data will be a key requirement for all countries.
  4. Ensuring that secondary data sharing within the public sector can take place, for instance towards NSOs and research bodies, is particularly important. This avoids burdening the private sector with multiple data requests and allows the public sector to fully untap the potential of the data for decision making. The “once only principle” should apply when it comes to data requests to private sector players and internal coordination within the public sector must take place for this principle to be respected.
  5. Legal clarity via regulatory measures does not only benefit the public sector but also the private sector. Through the establishment of clear rules on access to privately held data, the private sector gains visibility in terms of both remuneration opportunities and constraints applicable to the public sector bodies requesting and reusing the data. This helps define the size, shape and rules of the data market in the Business to Government (B2G) context.
  6. Gaining the buy-in of citizens towards private public data sharing initiatives is the ultimate challenge for public sector bodies. The COVID-19 pandemics showed that some governments were more effective than others in accessing privately held data. However, this does not necessarily mean that they were more trusted by their citizens. Even when access is easily obtained, lack of citizens’ trust can lead to data sharing failure along the way. Transparency from governments on how the data is collected, processed and used is vital to ensure long term sustainability of public private data access initiatives.

It is also important to consider the question of the ethical use of the data by governments in discussions around public-private data sharing. The Data Act establishes clear rules and guidelines for governmental bodies. Ethical considerations however are supra legislative matters which deserve a broader and global debate. For this reason, discussions within the Statistical Community at the UN level will be particularly important to reach a consensus on ethical standards and develop guidelines for NSOs which will increasingly work with privately held data.