April 12th, 2022
Instantiating Stewardship — A part of the puzzle toward rebalancing the data economy
Burgeoning digitization continues to move beyond personalised services, and now plays the role of transforming governments, policymaking processes and our integral relation to the state as citizens. As a part of this trajectory, there have also been ongoing development and deployment of artificial intelligence (AI), IoT and blockchain-based solutions by the public and private sectors. There is little doubt that these technology and data-driven solutions can be pivotal in creating impact — helping governments identify and design for gaps in service delivery and program implementation, better collaborate and define new strategies and innovations to tackle pressing global challenges like our climate crisis.
However, as underscored by the experiences of individuals and communities across the world, without intuitive offline and online architectures for control, decision-making, transparency or accountability, there is a risk of further marginalisation (evidenced most clearly in the lack of equitable access to vaccines) — pushing those with limited access or literacy of technology and data to be further sidelined. We can no longer assume that data-driven, predictive or automated solutions alone are sufficient in meeting the evolving needs of our society. Those committed to solving last-mile access challenges and building inclusive digital public infrastructures must consider the role of existing human architectures, intermediary organisations, and support networks in addressing these issues.
In the Data Economy Lab’s journey to build a responsible, agential and safe digital world, we have put forward data stewardship as one part of a broader set of necessary solutions. Data stewards are intermediary organisations or institutions that seek to empower individuals and communities, providing them with the ability to control or make decisions that relate to their data and allowing them more directly benefit from its value. Pushing the boundaries of participation beyond largely ineffective notice and consent mechanisms, stewards can be embedded with a greater duty of care and loyalty towards their subjects. This can extend to instilling meaningful accountability and safety mechanisms for principals and creating pathways for more substantive involvement in data decision-making and mechanisms for accountability.
It’s also worth noting that the increased proliferation of artificial intelligence and technologies will depend on the availability and aggregation of high-quality, trained datasets. Acknowledging these realities, further exploration is required into the labelling of the data (and who carries out this labour) and what frameworks are necessary to ensure the collection, governance and use of this data are ethical and rights preserving. Particularly for global challenges like climate change that necessitate these forms of data exchange from multiple sources, stakeholders and streams — an ecosystem of stewards will be a necessary piece of the puzzle.
Taking this into consideration, we envision that a diverse ecosystem of data intermediaries or guardians will be required to thrive in addition to, or often as part of, democratic public digital infrastructures. These stewards will play several roles — both technical and organisational — but will be driven by a larger agenda: to unlock the societal value of data while empowering and safeguarding the rights of individuals and communities.
Where we’ve gotten so far
Our research on data stewardship began with an exploration of the landscape, to understand how the concept has been translated on-ground and in what form. The taxonomy report we released in 2020 was one of the first of its kind that sought to delineate various models of stewardship that include: data collaboratives, personal data stores, trusts, exchanges, and marketplaces. This later was expanded to include data repositories, cooperatives and other organisations that act as ‘ecosystem enablers’.
Recognizing the diversity in application across use-case and sectors, we realised that our investigation required a sectoral, problem-led lens that could account for the nuances in how stewards could be designed and deployed. To this end, we carried out deep dives to understand both the opportunities and domain-specific challenges that may arise when considering stewardship’s application across sectors focusing on healthcare, agriculture, climate change, civil society and mobility/smart cities.
Feedback and conversations with startups or emerging stewards led to the realisation that our insights must be actionably surfaced back to the community (researchers, emerging stewards and policymakers). Responding to this, we released the Stewardship mapper which outlines the variation in structural choices and considerations while building a steward. Taking this a step further, we transformed this into an interactive guided questionnaire, the Stewardship Navigator. This tool (released in beta mode) has been designed to help organisations better think through aspects related to organisational structure, business model, services provided and how tethered stewards can be to their end-users, beneficiaries and society at large. We’ve documented our journey and vision for the tool in a detailed blog post.
More broadly, our guiding vision with this research has been to illustrate the opportunities and possibilities stewardship presents that could lend to a more equitable data lifecycle and value distribution system. To make this real, we’ve focused on uncovering new and existing models of participation, responsible data exchange and inter-stakeholder collaboration around data and its governance. The Tracking Stewardship video interview series we produce showcases these efforts and provides founders and pioneers with a platform to share their experiences.
The way forward
Our axis of inquiry till this point has focused on the steward itself — what form it should take — depending on the sector, use case and purpose, mechanisms it could employ to enable participation and representation and the business models it should be anchored by to maximise privacy while limiting possibilities for extraction of data. However, our research indicates that while there is a growing set of stewards or steward-like initiatives across sectors and use-cases, many face challenges in sustaining and scaling. Differing regulatory environments and varying support from the ecosystem (funding, infrastructure, appetite for stewardship/data intermediaries) must be further unpacked to understand what support is best required and where.
Therefore, going forward, we believe instantiating stewardship will require top-down and bottom-up support. From a national, regional and international level, policy pathways and governance principles will be required for stewardship to gain ground. Ensuring these systems remain community-centric and accountable also necessitates building the capacities, infrastructure and models for engagement to empower beneficiaries (or data subjects) from the bottom-up.
Taking this into account, our research aims to delve deeper into these foundational layers required for stewards to thrive at an ecosystem level. We aim to do this by analysing a few different dimensions including the regulatory landscape and funding ecosystem. We also aim to understand both the enablers and barriers that stewards have come up against at a technical, legal, social and economic level.
A key component of this research and analysis will be to uncover how stewardship will fit into ongoing policy formulation globally. Current debates around the Data Governance Act in Europe have already referred to the role of intermediaries in the digital economy. It highlights how stewardship will be a critical bridging mechanism for data subjects and data controllers and may channelise data used in ways that benefit the public. In a similar vein, the Indian regulatory ecosystem is re-imagining its consent architecture, to uphold user agency through the introduction of a consent manager framework. While these developments are promising, further dialogue, consultation and research backing will be required to meaningfully flesh out the functions of the steward including its advisory capacities and structures for accountability and grievance mediation. Focusing on these new approaches will also be important if we are to understand opportunities to adapt these frameworks and structures in other parts of the world.
Sectors & Core Focus Areas
Building on our existing sectoral expertise, our research aims to expand on our understanding of the state of data stewardship in the following areas and will explore several related questions or sub-themes:
Healthcare — Availability, Access, Innovation
- Strengthening public health management and interventions through technology & data (enabling regulation and defining ecosystem and infrastructural capabilities)
- Powering inclusive health research, innovation and treatment possibilities through responsible data sharing (Defining frameworks and building blocks for safe data collection, usage and exchange at municipal, national and regional levels)
- Building and scaling patient-centric stewards that empower individuals & communities while safeguarding rights
Urban Governance (Mobility, Smart Cities) — Infrastructure, Citizen Services, Civic Participation
- Strengthening city planning, public service management and delivery — building foundations for robust multi-departmental/-stakeholder data exchange — creating privacy-centric public digital infrastructures
- Data drove policy-making, governance and planning for a sustainable future — defining data ecosystems for new energy, waste and resource management
- Creating inclusive, accountable and effective citizen-centric systems online / offline — design principles, safeguards and participation mechanisms/structures
Environment & Sustainability — Climate change, conservation and sustainability
- Data solidarities & systems of resilience — supporting indigenous and local knowledge systems in enhancing adaptive capacities
- Enhancing the unlocking, pooling and collective value of data –research, community empowerment, green innovation, policymaking
- Mainstreaming bottom-up & citizen science efforts — participatory governance of data for conservation, climate-related policies and investment
To understand unique needs and provide actionable recommendations in the form of guides, toolkits and audiovisual content, the Data Economy Lab aims to use a global case-study led approach that explores stewardship across sectors and jurisdictions to drive forward this research. This will involve the following steps
- Sector-wise Ecosystem Diagnosis — Dive into an in-depth review of the policy environment and emerging discourse around data privacy, protection, governance and analysis. Specific focus will be placed on one country as a case study.
- Expert Interview & Consultation — Carry out a set of interviews with key stakeholders in each sector: data stewards, enabling organisations, peer research institutes/organisations, nonprofits/civil society organisations and policymakers to understand their experience — What is the state of stewardship in the respective geography, who is doing what, where are the stewards located, how do we make this solution real — what is needed?
- Dynamic Policy Tracking & Response — Track upcoming developments in the domestic (India) and the international policy landscape to understand the positioning and role of stewardship and offer necessary comments to encourage a more reflexive, citizen-centric framing or approach.
- Co-producing knowledge with partners — Engage with peer research institutes and existing organisations looking to play the role of a responsible steward and leverage this experience to understand unique pain points and surface possible design choices and policy experiments. Document these learnings with the support of the partner to underscore gaps and share findings for other organisations with similar use-cases.
- Translate findings into actionable tools and knowledge repositories — These findings will be brought together in the form of an overarching report that defines the way forward for stewardship. The report will be composed of an analytical overview (drawn from the diagnosis phase), a set of playbooks or tools/guides (extrapolated from expert insights, consultation and co-designed with our partners).
If you are interested in learning more about this work or collaborating with us on any of these questions, please get in touch with us at [email protected].