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Data ecosystems to solve the world’s biggest challenges

Wed May 4, 2022
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We asked two international sector leaders in our network how they define data ecosystems, why they believe they can play a critical role in helping meet the challenges we collectively face, and how they are implementing good practice in their own organisations

Solving our big societal challenges requires efficient data flows between people, organisations, sectors, and countries. This involves complex interactions to enable the sharing and use of data via efficient data ecosystems.

To make an impact we need data ecosystems that are fit for purpose and enable actors to work together – whether the challenges are around health, climate change, or developing open city environments.

A data ecosystem involves a group of people, communities, and organisations that are collecting and stewarding data, creating things from it, and deciding what to do based on it. It also includes any partners that influence any of those activities, or are affected by them. 

At the Open Data Institute (ODI), we have been exploring the requirements of successful data ecosystems and started identifying what makes them work, and the challenges that need to be overcome.  

What role can data ecosystems play in tackling global challenges?

In order for data ecosystems to drive change and bring about economic, environmental, and societal benefits, there are several factors that need to be addressed – from technical considerations (such as availability of data, data usability, and interoperability), to human and organisational factors such as data literacy, accountability, common objectives, strong data ethics, and a supportive community environment which allows for trust, reciprocity and a mutual exchange of benefits.   

We asked two international sector leaders in our network how they define data ecosystems, why they believe they can play a critical role in helping meet the challenges we collectively face, and how they are implementing good practice in their own organisations. 

Dr Claire Melamed is CEO of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, which works with partner governments around the world, mainly in Africa and Latin America, to build ecosystems that bring together institutions, governments, the public and private sectors to ensure that data can play a role in policymaking and social progress: 

The main benefit that is derived from thinking at an ecosystem level is that it gets you away from operating on a product by product or service by service basis. Looking at everything as a single challenge with a single accompanying set of data that can solve it means missing out on so many opportunities to combine data sets and reuse insights from one challenge to help solve the next one. By thinking at an ecosystem level, everyone involved can see how the pieces of a puzzle fit together and this encourages efficiency – avoiding reinventing the wheel repeatedly in different silos because nobody knows a similar problem has been solved.

Taking government as an example, combining resources and allowing data to flow across different departments massively increases the ability to gain insights from a much richer data stream, therefore improving efficiency and accelerating progress. It allows challenges to be viewed within the wider context of governance and policy constraints, and takes into account data standards and ethics across the board. An example of politicians thinking seriously about ecosystems and how to drive them is the EU’s standardisation strategy which aims to ensure a resilient digital economy with a set of democratic values for all.

In the public sector, creating an ecosystem depends on the people in power, and whether they see investing in data policy and data infrastructure as a priority. Increasingly, governments are seeing the benefits of stronger and more integrated data ecosystems in terms of their ability to deliver services and take advantage of economic opportunities. Additionally, geopolitical factors are coming into play, with the US, China and EU all competing to get other countries to follow their model and adopt their standards. 

Volker Buscher is the Chief Data Officer at Arup, responsible for developing the data solutions to support Arup-wide automation, services, and products. Arup and the ODI recently published a white paper calling for the adoption of ‘Data Infrastructure for Market Openness’ – an Open Banking style of sharing data to enable innovation:

At Arup, when we develop a new framework we want to think about how to bring our clients and partners together in a more structured way, to move beyond the current default model for sharing data and towards creating ecosystems that are fit for purpose. There are two areas which we find challenging – bilateral and decentralised sharing.

Bilateral data sharing, is where you have a large construction project or advisory programme where a principal party owns the assets and can set out the ground rules on how data is shared.  

The issue is that it is not data that is shared, but files, so one thing we need to address is how to move to automated or machine integrated data sharing so that volumes of data can be shared in an efficient way. The starting point for this is to understand the data ecosystem for the project, identify principles and roles of stakeholders and then address technical aspects such as APIs. There needs to be focus and education at senior executive level to create and organise a data ecosystem for major infrastructure work.

In many sectors such as energy, water or transport, decentralised or federated sharing is best – but again this has to be agreed by participants and someone needs to take leadership. These are large and complex data ecosystems that require a trust framework that benefits individual organisations and the ecosystem at large. The poster boy for this approach is Open Banking, which has since created a market estimated to be worth $43 million by 2026. With Open Banking, the government’s commitment and early engagement of the UK’s largest banks and fin tech sector meant that people wanted to participate and, once they did, industry joined in at scale because it was in its own commercial interest. I am not sure if other sectors are in the same position right now. I think we have a lack of data maturity and agreement on why an ecosystem should come together to create a decentralised trust framework.

Another barrier in the UK is that organisations working in the built and natural world do not have the skills or knowledge to implement data sharing, and industry bodies also do not have the right competency around data at this stage. It is not what they were set up to deal with, so more advanced ideas like data ecosystems, data infrastructure and market openness are a step too far. We would love to help change this and if we can find enough organisations in the built and natural world that want to work in creating better data ecosystems we are happy to work with them.

Get involved

Data ecosystems that bring organisations and sectors together are becoming crucial in creating a future where data works for everyone, and at the ODI we aim to further them by: 

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