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Guest Blog: Tackling the data sharing challenge

Posted on: Monday 6th of July 2015

Data sharing can deliver the missing piece of the puzzle

We use language to communicate, but sometimes it gets in the way. For example, we commonly use the general word ‘data’ while overlooking the fact that the value and the harm it creates comes from its specific qualities. And its specific uses.

Each particular dataset provides a single perspective on the people, staff or machines that generate it. Another dataset from another loyalty card, another bank, another utility company or another mobile app could provide a very different view.

This means that even though most organisations are still trying to figure out how to make use of the data that they have, adding more data from another source can still be the missing piece of a particular insight puzzle.

For example, loyalty cards tell supermarkets about our lives, but only our shopping lives. And they describe buying actions rather than intentions or goals. Actions are really useful for lots of purposes, e.g. noticing subtle customer life events, modelling churn or spotting trends in segments and higher level customer groupings. But dealing with intentions and goals helps firms in prediction and also in influencing customers on a much more fundamental level than product cross-selling and up-selling.

Data sharing is not only about personal data

Combining datasets from different sources also helps organisations to be more effective, even when none of the data is personal or when it is not originally sourced from private individuals. Organisations that work together in supply chains or in partnerships of public services all become more ‘joined-up’ if they share data. This increases their speed, efficiency and capabilities. In my work with networks of commercial and government organisations it is common to see opportunities for new data flows that significantly increase efficiencies and customer experience – at the same time.

In resilience planning for example, data sharing helps stakeholders to plan how to balance and prioritise capabilities and objectives. Sharing operational and transaction data enables supply chains to be more easily reconfigured by preplanning even when the reason is not predicable.

There are many useful precedents for data sharing that enable organisations to work more smoothly together or do things that they could not do on their own. For example the Mortgage Market Database enables an anonymous view of the whole mortgage market; Experian and other firms pool data from credit providers to assess credit applications and to help detect fraud; eBenchmarkers “build peer groups of competing brands that share performance data anonymously”; and Javelin’s SHOPSCORE database allows retailers to benchmark store performance.

But our society does not yet know how to share data safely

When it comes to sharing personal data however, there is a danger that we will harm customer trust. I’m talking about ‘trust’ because it is an outcome – there are many many different ways to use even a single dataset and one way to avoid getting bogged down is by talking about outcomes rather than how you get there.

When it comes to sharing truly anonymous data between firms or customer data gathered by firms, there are several questions that we need to answer:

  • Who controls the data?
  • How can the benefits of using the data be shared?
  • How can any damage that sharing this data causes be fixed?
  • How can we educate our wider society to be aware of the implications of sharing data?

These are questions that apply across the board to sharing between business, between customers and businesses and among communities of customers and users.

There is a missing ‘Third Party’ in our emerging data ecosystem

Industry regulators are supposed to protect consumer interests. But they have limited resources and tend to operate on a market level, usually only acting against individual firms when they do large scale harm. Similarly, they do not have the staff or the time to help individual customers in any detail. For example, the ICO are developing a trustmark initiative using potential partners and the CMA is looking into how businesses collect and use consumer data and the implications for firms and consumers.

In my research I have noticed a gap in our emerging data ecosystem: a missing ‘Third Party’. This Third Party would help individual consumers to deal with networks of large and small firms; help firms to share and use data in new ways in return for doing so appropriately; aid regulators to bridge the gap between the market and individual consumers, staff and firms; and give privacy and consumer organisations a platform to help more consumers and to engage with more firms.

There is a need to preserve consumer trust as our society learns how to use data responsibly. The mechanism for motivating large as well as small firms to behave responsibly could be by allowing them access to (a) a data sharing ‘club’ and (b) best practice training in how to use the data. Bad behaviour would mean no access and losing to the competition.

By itself the ICO can only police the higher levels of the economy. The data industry must police itself or consumers will (rightly) impede the development of our society’s use of their data.

Personal data lockers and similar organisations provide a much needed person-centred perspective on this gap in the data ecosystem. But there are many other stakeholders and many other perspectives. The potential for much harm is at the interface between two or more organisations, i.e. at the actual point at which data is shared. So a business-to-business perspective is also required.

The information logistics challenge

The idea of a Third Party is partly an information logistics platform, which is a data sharing service that supports provenance, permissions and commercial needs. So that information can be shared between stakeholders in a way that protects the privacy. But a Third Party is also a vehicle for managing the societal problems and opportunities that data sharing brings. Not just data control but value sharing, damage avoidance and fixing … and most important of all educating our wider society about sharing data safely.

My objective is to build this Third Party but it needs critical mass. I am assembling a network of interested parties and my research is starting to come up with answers to the questions above.

Duncan Shaw is currently a Lecturer in Information Systems at Nottingham University Business School. Before that he worked in logistics and management consultancy for the Total Group and for Motorola, where he was responsible for customer satisfaction in Europe, Middle East and Africa. He blogs at