Understanding Data Ownership: Ethical data governance principles for sustainability data

Data-trading as a function of business is maturing along with experience in the crafting and implementation of data sharing agreements by interested parties. Sustainability organizations are increasingly parties to these agreements and must ensure they are carrying out their due diligence before implementing data sharing agreements with technology providers and other partners.

Knowing your rights and responsibilities with the data you collect and manage is important since that knowledge will be reflected in the data agreements your organization agrees to which set a tone and precedent in partner relationships. Once data sharing terms are established, changing them to more favorable terms for your organization may be difficult.

Sustainability stakeholders are becoming increasingly hungry for better and more data to make sustainability-related decisions, such as for supply chain risk management approaches. An example is a cocoa supply chain that wants to make better sourcing decisions to ensure cocoa supply for the next 30 years. The data to enable this type of decision-making is held by organizations such as sustainability standards. 

This data exchange is possible and mutually beneficial if a few conditions are met. One condition is that the data is available with regularity (e.g. annually or quarterly) and is available in consistently good quality. Another is that sustainability standards understand their rights to sharing the data and characteristics of the data such as who owns the data. This is where lines may become less clear for sustainability data-sharing because data ownership is often not clearly defined or documented.

To make good data sharing possible, sustainability organizations must define data ownership. For some data such as personal data from a certified coffee farmer, it may be clear. However, certification process data such as data collected about standard compliance in the audit is typically owned by the standard system because it is related to their intellectual property (the standard). 

In order to make good decisions about data sharing agreements by understanding concepts and principles such as those behind data ownership, organizations can consider the principles behind their data sharing approaches. These principles sit at the heart of data governance programs . They guide the work of the data governance board or council at your organization.

Below are two considerations for sustainability organizations in the use of sustainability data needed by a range of sectors and supply chains to address complex environmental challenges and measure sustainability risks:

1. Explore models for data sharing in sustainability

Data use by private companies focuses on objectives to sell and monetize data products and services. Sustainability organizations are working towards the greater good. They have ethical obligations to ensure that data value (for data they own or process) is not sold for profit but rather distributed to a range of stakeholders.

This is because their primary goals are to address sustainability challenges possible only in partnership and collaboration with other stakeholders. In order to steward sustainability data responsibly and sustainably, sustainability organizations entering into data sharing agreements should become more aware and knowledgeable about data ownershDip and sharing.

A range of initiatives already exist to deepen our understanding of use and sharing of sustainability and social good data. Two examples are below:  

Open Up Guide for Agriculture – Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN):  How governments can more openly share agriculture data to support nutrition and food security.

Data Trusts Report 2019 – The Open Data Institute: This resource answers questions such as: Similar to financial trusts, how can data trusts ensure distributed ownership and stewardship of data resources in a range of contexts with shared objectives in data use?

2. Understand data ownership to preserve trust 

Data is now central to informing sustainability decisions through data sharing agreements and technology platforms that visualize and grant access to data. It is essential that sustainability organizations understand which data they own and the rights and responsibilities of the stakeholders who handle the data they manage. This can include producers, company supply chain partners, and intermediaries such as certification bodies and technical assistance providers. 

Only some of this data is personal data and already protected by emerging data privacy regulation such as GDPR, which means that a broad range of data is not currently inventoried with documented ownership. This is leading to the erosion of trust in key supply chain relationships where producers are beginning to see additional inequality in how they benefit from sustainability efforts.

An example is in the use of emerging technology such as blockchain which requires sustainability efforts to carefully consider both the source and owners of the data, in addition to its quality. In an article on data ownership and governance challenges for small coffee producers, one producer noted:

I realized the data collected doesn’t belong to the farmers. It belongs to the owners of supply chain software. From an investor’s point of view, it sounds brilliant, but to some coffee farmers, it suggests something different. If data is the new product, the new commodity, then the farmers are still only being paid for the bean.

So how can sustainability organizations address these data ownership and sharing questions as they work to get the most from their data and use it effectively to make decisions?

One way is to establish principles for ethical data sharing much like the principles that sit behind sustainability efforts. See this example from Chatham House. Ethical data governance principles also apply to sustainability data and organizations can use principles as a guide to steer its data governance board or council’s work. 

For more about how the data governance board or council fits into your data governance program, see the data governance framework aimed at supporting sustainability standards in the design and implementation of data governance. Contact me to begin your journey to good data governance and confident data sharing.

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