Geneva, 05 June 2020 – The Swiss Confederation, in cooperation with the United Nations, organized a virtual meeting in preparation to the UN World Data Forum (UNWDF), that will take place in Bern this coming October.  

Data sharing discussions are at the center of “evidence-based policy-making and global governance”, stated Ambassador Jean-Pierre Raymond, Head of Innovation and Partnerships at the Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the United Nations Office in Geneva, and it is at the heart of achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

The COVID-19 crisis, accelerated the importance of international cooperation to develop regulatory frameworks that serve the common good, respects citizens right to privacy, and stimulates innovation. 

Until now international cooperation in data sharing has not been central in multilateral, multi-stakeholder fora. More than 30 international declarations on data governance exist but their implementation is lagging. 

“What is the missing link? What can be done to close the gap between proclaimed principles and reality of data sharing? How to identify, exchange, and use data across the data silos?” 

These and other questions on data sharing were discussed through multiple lenses during the last Road to Bern event. 

“Discussions on data sharing have so far converged around the UN’s experience in New York, host to the UN Global Pulse, the UN Statistical Commission, and three major initiatives on data and global cooperation associated with the UN Foundation in New York: the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, Data 2X, and the Digital Impact Alliance.”  

Participants included the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), the International Trade Center (ITC), the World Health Organisation, a number of humanitarian organisations, private sector actors, and Sage Bionetworks.

We spoke with John Wilbanks, Chief Commons Officer of Sage Bionetworks, about the main take-aways from the event, the road to international cooperation, and what is at stake. 

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About: The Road to Bern seeks to advance the search for a “solution that should not only be inspired by the core values of international cooperation, but also anchored in the practical policy and budgetary reality of international organisations, tech companies, countries and communities worldwide.”

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Source: Swiss Confederation

The Road to Bern discussion focused on the following pillars of data sharing: 

Identifying the purpose of data sharing is one of the most frequently quoted principles for dealing with sensitive data. As an example, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) shares data with other agencies only when people they care for can benefit from shared data, and if the goal is humanitarian. 

Data is shared once a Privacy Impact Assessment confirms these criteria. However, a narrow view of this principle may lead us to overlook incidental insights, patterns, and correlations. 

The standardisation and harmonisation of data is essential as new and diverse data sources emerge. The diversity of data types and sources is particularly important for ensuring data sharing across the 230 SDG indicators. There are also a growing number of sectoral initiatives which develop standards and other measures promoting harmonised data, such as trade facilitation (UN Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business), meteorology and hydrology (World Meteorological Organization), and the humanitarian field (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ (OCHA) Humanitarian Data Exchange). 

The standardisation process of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), for example, breaks down silos by involving various industries, regulators, and academic institutions into the process. 

Data protection and security are particularly important in the humanitarian field, where the mishandling or misuse of personal data can have serious consequences to people’s safety. 

Regardless of the field and scope, the sharing of data should adhere to national and international regulations, standards, and principles. A number of data collection and processing principles have been developed by major international organisations and other actors. Anonymisation, coupled with technical and legal measures to minimise the risk of de-anonymisation, is one approach for sharing aggregated personal data, especially during crises such as COVID-19. 

Private-public partnerships are emerging as a key pillar of data sharing, in particular, between tech companies which collect large amounts of data, and international organisations and governments which require data for effective public policy. The COVID-19 pandemic increased private-public cooperation around data, especially on epidemiologic measures, research on vaccine and health solutions, and the use of contact-tracing apps for social distancing and preventing spread of virus. 

One of the first examples of effective private-public partnerships was the use of phone data during the Ebola epidemic. Since then, mobile network operators have been important data contributors to health protection, education, and financial inclusion. 

At the international level, there have been few initiatives. The mobile industry association GSMA introduced a wide range of principles and guidelines for data sharing between companies and the public sector/international organisations such as GSMA’s Big Data for Social Good (in co-operation with the UN Foundation) and, more recently, GSMA’s COVID-19 Privacy Guidelines. On the other hand, the Global Initiative on AI and Data Commons aims to bring together data owners from different stakeholder groups. Additionally, the International Trade Centre (ITC) has been cooperating with Alibaba and using their data to measure the inclusion of the least developed countries (LDCs) in the global e-commerce market, and to categories products which are traded worldwide. 

With an increasing number of data protection regulations, data sharing faces administrative and legal complexities. International organisations can address this challenge by having a co-ordinated approach in negotiating data-sharing arrangements with the private sector, academia, and other stakeholders.
An example is the UN Global Pulse’s support to the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) to establish a legal arrangement with Twitter for using the company’s datasets for anti-discrimination campaigns. 

The alignment of incentives among international organisations, companies, and governments, is a pre-condition for effective partnerships around data-sharing. At present, the incentives and motivation of major actors are very diverse. Pressured by financial austerity measures, international organisations and national governments may use data they produce or manage as a potential source of funding. This is why it is crucial to ensure that data sharing does not become collateral damage of various budgetary cuts and restrictions. Read more.