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A Commons Approach to Data Governance

– New America

Who owns data? New America authors propose that data can be viewed as a common good, governed by all

In this piece for New America, authors Yulia Panfil and Andrew Hagopian explore the question of how data should be governed, arguing for a flexible approach that views data as if it were a public or communal good.

The piece opens by noting the inherent paradox underlying discussions around data governance: data is not a finite, fixed commodity, meaning that it cannot be singularly "owned" by any one person or group.

The authors explain: "a resource is excludable if you can prevent others from using it. It’s rivalrous if it can be ‘used up’." Unlike that which we consider private property – say, a car or a wristwatch – data is neither rivalrous or excludable.

Instead, Panfil and Hagopian suggest that data be viewed more akin to natural resources: a good that can be simultaneously used by multiple people in different ways; that is not easily depleted; and that becomes more valuable when viewed together rather than in isolation.

In this way, the authors argue, the benefits of data can be more fully realised and shared. They highlight the example of open science data – in which researchers can access other researchers’ data on the condition that they share the outcomes of their own research – as an example of the ways in which common data can be used for public good.

The piece concludes:

The current debate over how to govern data centers on two poles: privacy, and private property. Each of these poles, while helpfully answering certain governance questions, introduces a dogma that is unhelpful when dealing with a resource that is diverse and changing quickly. Introducing a third frame—the commons—may unlock new pieces of the data governance puzzle, and help us solve the problem of how to regulate and manage this new and rapidly changing resource.

Looking at data through a “commons” lens provides a way for us to distribute the benefits of this resource widely and equitably, without commodifying or privatizing it

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