Every day, the digitalization of our society generates a vast amount of data. But so far, the general public has benefited too little from it.
This week Brussels has seen the launch of “The Data Tank”. What is it designed to do?
Stefaan Verhulst: At The Data Tank, we aim to serve the common good by using data differently. This is innovative and needed in a variety of ways. We focus not only on how we can prevent the misuse of day but also on how we can re-use the large amount of data already generated in a way that serves the common good. For instance, data resulting from commercial or financial transactions can be used to inform how to tackle addictive behaviors or be used as proxy for the economic situation of families. Or mobile phone detail records can be used to understand urban mobility patterns that may improve urban planning. This requires us to move beyond data protection or data hoarding, and to move towards a world where data is reused and shared, willingly and responsibly.
Julia Stamm: I also want to underline that The Data Tank is not a think tank, but rather a think and do tank. The doing aspect is very important to us. We want to complement thought leadership with actions in the field, working with communities, testing out tangible interventions and making a real difference for people on the ground. We want to connect new ways to engage citizens with new approaches in how relevant and high-quality data is being leveraged. And we are keen to do this by working with partners from around the world.
“The digital technologies transforming our societies are all driven by the generation, use and reuse of data. To ensure that the potential of data is used in a manner that benefits individuals and society while preventing the risk of misuse and harms, we need a more deliberative and proactive effort to develop frameworks and coalitions that show how this can work in practice. We are happy to support the work of The Data Tank to reach this goal.” (Jessica Bither, Robert Bosch Foundation)
The German government is currently discussing the establishment of a data institute. What will The Data Tank do and deliver that is different from such a public institution?
Julia Stamm: The new German data institute is still in the making, and it’s probably too early to talk about what it’s going to do in very practical terms. Also, The Data Tank’s geographic focus is global. For us, however, it is not a question of competition. At The Data Tank, we will partner with organisations, individuals, and communities around the world, who share our mission to serve the common good by using data differently. We will pool the learning from people doing innovative hands-on work, and we’ll share those examples with policy makers for them to draw on the latest thinking and doing for their work. And we hope that the German data institute will be one of these partners.
Your vision is to accelerate the release and use of data. What should be improved with the way data is used today?
Julia Stamm: The issue is that only a small percentage of the data generated is actually used to serve the common good, i.e. in order to solve social challenges. But using meaningful data more than is currently the case would have huge beneficial implications for all areas of our society, be it health, education, mobility, climate action etc. However, much of it is hoarded or used in a way that generates asymmetries and inequalities. To give you an example: Data is at the basis of all AI systems. But we often do not know what kind of data they have been built on. All too often, biased data sets are being fed into the machines, and the machines not only repeat the biases but amplify them. If we really want to address today’s existential challenges, we not only need all hands on deck, we also need high-quality, relevant and trustworthy data to help us transform the way we go about the problems at hand.
At the launch event on March 6, 2023 in Brussels, the directors presented the potential of the Data Tank.
Huge knowledge on generating, collecting and making use of data exists in big tech companies. How are you engaging with them?
Stefaan Verhulst: Francis Bacon insisted that knowledge is power. In today’s digital economy, data is to some extent power. And we are dealing with large data asymmetries, especially those with big tech companies, that re-enforce existing power asymmetries. So overcoming these data asymmetries is essential if we want to embrace a more inclusive and equitable society. However, in today’s digital world, every company has become a data company and so we need to adopt a broader perspective to the data supply that is currently underused for the common good.
As one of your activities you want to start a Social License Lab. What is this about specifically?
Stefaan Verhulst: In a kind of experimental lab we want to develop a completely new concept that seeks to complement and extend individual consent by focusing on community preferences and priorities. Coming back to my example of using cell phone or commercial data, it will be important to get a sense of individuals and communities what their preferences and desires are as it relates to re-using their data for publicly beneficial purposes. It also seeks to provide a broader concept of self-determination by focusing on enabling all parties to come together and negotiate how data can be re-used in a way that benefits all parties involved and society at large. Similar to what creative commons license (authors give other people the possibility to use their music, pictures or texts under certain conditions without having to ask explicitly for permission, editor's note) did to the open source and open data movement, we believe we need a new kind of social license for data re-use.