Data to Go: The Value of Data Portability as a Means to Data Liquidity

Juliet McMurren and Stefaan G. Verhulst at Data & Policy: “If data is the “new oil,” why isn’t it flowing? For almost two decades, data management in fields such as government, healthcare, finance, and research has aspired to achieve a state of data liquidity, in which data can be reused where and when it is needed. For the most part, however, this aspiration remains unrealized. The majority of the world’s data continues to stagnate in silos, controlled by data holders and inaccessible to both its subjects and others who could use it to create or improve services, for research, or to solve pressing public problems.

Efforts to increase liquidity have focused on forms of voluntary institutional data sharing such as data pools or other forms of data collaboratives. Although useful, these arrangements can only advance liquidity so far. Because they vest responsibility and control over liquidity in the hands of data holders, their success depends on data holders’ willingness and ability to provide access to their data for the greater good. While that willingness exists in some fields, particularly medical research, a willingness to share data is much less likely where data holders are commercial competitors and data is the source of their competitive advantage. And even where willingness exists, the ability of data holders to share data safely, securely, and interoperably may not. Without a common set of secure, standardized, and interoperable tools and practices, the best that such bottom-up collaboration can achieve is a disconnected patchwork of initiatives, rather than the data liquidity proponents are seeking.

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Data portability is one potential solution to this problem. As enacted in the EU General Data Protection Regulation (2018) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (2018), the right to data portability asserts that individuals have a right to obtain, copy, and reuse their personal data and transfer it between platforms or services. In so doing, it shifts control over data liquidity to data subjects, obliging data holders to release data whether or not it is in their commercial interests to do so. Proponents of data portability argue that, once data is unlocked and free to move between platforms, it can be combined and reused in novel ways and in contexts well beyond those in which it was originally collected, all while enabling greater individual control.

To date, however, arguments for the benefits of the right to data portability have typically failed to connect this rights-based approach with the larger goal of data liquidity and how portability might advance it. This failure to connect these principles and to demonstrate their collective benefits to data subjects, data holders, and society has real-world consequences. Without a clear view of what can be achieved, policymakers are unlikely to develop interventions and incentives to advance liquidity and portability, individuals will not exercise their rights to data portability, and industry will not experiment with use cases and develop the tools and standards needed to make portability and liquidity a reality.

Toward these ends, we have been exploring the current literature on data portability and liquidity, searching for lessons and insights into the benefits that can be unlocked when data liquidity is enabled through the right to data portability. Below we identify some of the greatest potential benefits for society, individuals, and data-holding organizations. These benefits are sometimes in conflict with one another, making the field a contentious one that demands further research on the trade-offs and empirical evidence of impact. In the final section, we also discuss some barriers and challenges to achieving greater data liquidity….(More)”.