The COVID-19 pandemic is an economic, political, cultural and, above all else, human tragedy without parallel in our recent history. The path out of this crisis remains unclear; the world is gripped by a profound sense of uncertainty about what comes next. Though vaccines, therapeutics, and non-pharmaceutical interventions each play a role, none alone are a silver bullet. We will need an arsenal.
Data is likely to be an important—perhaps even essential—component of this arsenal. The GovLab has conducted extensive research in countries around the world to understand how data can be used responsibly and safely to help decision-makers navigate complex problems such as the one we are now facing. Their work has focused on the re-use of data, often through collaborative mechanisms and arrangements (both formal and ad hoc) between the public and private sectors and also between the private sector and civil society.
A core issue is that policymakers and data holders often have little understanding of how different communities of users feel about the underlying issues—especially the trade-offs between risk and benefit that are inherent to data re-use. As a result, regulators and government leaders often find themselves torn between competing impulses. On the one hand, they may adopt sharing and re-use policies that could endanger privacy and other rights of users, particularly those from traditionally marginalised communities. On the other hand, excessive caution may severely limit the options for data re-use out of fear of violating those rights, curtailing the wider societal benefits. This conflict between over-sharing and not sharing enough is the central conundrum faced by data governance today. It is one the authors hope to begin addressing with this project.