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Digital public assets should be democratised, not given away for private profit

'Open’ government data has been captured by private interests. The only way to democratise the use of digital public assets is to ‘open up’ who decides how they are used.

Rosie Collington
1 November 2019
Image: marketing istc

From fossil fuel companies to Silicon Valley-based apps, private interests have benefitted immensely from New Labour and Coalition government open data initiatives. And the uses of public sector data, which includes health systems, traffic and fiscal information, have often put profit before the interests of people. A paper published by Common Wealth today shows it doesn’t have to be this way.

Mark Zuckerberg was barely out of his Harvard dormitory when open data campaigns first began to gain steam in the UK. In these heady years of dotcom hype and Ask Jeeves, concerns about how data was used and for what ends had, for the most part, one target: the government. For most of capitalism’s history, the state has been the main arbiter of data and statistical information about not only its citizens and their land, but also about the people and land it wished to colonise. Even at the turn of the century, it was beyond the realm of plausibility that entire industries might one day be built around the trade of data-sourced and -sourcing products.

The diverse coalition of civil society bodies and individuals campaigning under the banner of “open government data” (OGD) from the early 2000s advocated unrestricted and free access to public sector information, hailing it as indispensable for government accountability and digital innovation, among other causes. And while the democratic claims of certain groups advocating OGD remain unquestionably important, in a paper published by Common Wealth today, we suggest that the radical transformation of the public sector and of digital infrastructures in recent decades require us to rethink how publicly-held datasets are accessed, and for what ends. The current model of ‘open’ government data has been captured by private interests; the only way to democratise the use of public datasets is to ‘open up’ who decides how they are used.

Digital public assets

Fundamentally, this demands that we recognise publicly-held data as a public asset – not simply a wasted by-product of public administration that needs to be ‘unlocked’ for use in the ‘innovative’ private sector. The current modes of describing the data held by government bodies fail to capture the weight of the potential social and economic value stored within it, as well as the risk of its (mis)use in a way that puts profit before people. This matters, because unlike the sprawling data infrastructures of big tech companies such as Facebook, how publicly-held data is used has largely failed to capture the public’s and policymakers’ attention. This is despite the extortionate profits yielded by private actors from the use of open government data.

We shouldn’t underestimate how important the information collected by the British public sector and published in open formats has been for the private sector – from fossil fuel companies to banks, drug manufacturers and the ‘ridesharing’ industry. Uber is a case in point. Ahead of its initial offering earlier this year, which valued the Silicon Valley-based company at $82.4 billion, Uber integrated Transport for London open data into its app, promising investors that it would become the market leader in London journey planning. And while, as Uber itself predicts, this could foster even greater use of the app among Londoners, any economic gains are unlikely to be recouped by either TfL or Uber drivers.

Who decides what is valuable?

But these tensions also reveal ways in which new governance models for digital public assets could be developed in the interests of workers and the wider public. Among the paper’s suggestions for initiatives to democratise publicly-held data is a requirement for non-public actors that seek to use digital public assets, such as companies, to negotiate the terms of its workers with trade unions. Value in digital public assets – both economic and social – is ultimately created by people, the places we inhabit, and the public sector workers that render the data utilizable.

In recognition of the collective nature of data production, agreements for non-public actors to develop innovations that harness their economic value could stipulate that a fair share of the profit generated through their use is returned to both the public sector; and to digital workers’ cooperatives, to allow them to build the capability needed for future, socially-valuable innovations that are perhaps beyond the imaginaries of tech giants.

Ultimately, the wider value of digital public assets will always depend on how they are used in society. Certain groups, such as asylum seekers, continue to be exploited by information infrastructures built by the state in the UK and beyond. At the heart of the paper’s proposals for platforms and spaces where collective choices about the use of digital public assets are made is the case for all those about whom data is sourced to be involved in the decisions about its use – which includes whether it should be used at all.

The early OGD advocates of twenty years ago recognised that publicly-held data had the potential to be used for the benefit of wider society. And they were right. But a lot has changed since then, and perhaps more so in the next decade than ever before, how we structure our economy and society will determine how future generations get to live. It is critical that we rethink how democratic ownership and collective value can be harnessed through digital public assets - for people and planet.

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