OpenUp Corporate Data while Protecting Privacy

Article by Stefaan G. Verhulst and David Sangokoya, (The GovLab) for the OpenUp? Blog: “Consider a few numbers: By the end of 2014, the number of mobile phone subscriptions worldwide is expected to reach 7 billion, nearly equal to the world’s population. More than 1.82 billion people communicate on some form of social network, and almost 14 billion sensor-laden everyday objects (trucks, health monitors, GPS devices, refrigerators, etc.) are now connected and communicating over the Internet, creating a steady stream of real-time, machine-generated data.
Much of the data generated by these devices is today controlled by corporations. These companies are in effect “owners” of terabytes of data and metadata. Companies use this data to aggregate, analyze, and track individual preferences, provide more targeted consumer experiences, and add value to the corporate bottom line.
At the same time, even as we witness a rapid “datafication” of the global economy, access to data is emerging as an increasingly critical issue, essential to addressing many of our most important social, economic, and political challenges. While the rise of the Open Data movement has opened up over a million datasets around the world, much of this openness is limited to government (and, to a lesser extent, scientific) data. Access to corporate data remains extremely limited. This is a lost opportunity. If corporate data—in the form of Web clicks, tweets, online purchases, sensor data, call data records, etc.—were made available in a de-identified and aggregated manner, researchers, public interest organizations, and third parties would gain greater insights on patterns and trends that could help inform better policies and lead to greater public good (including combatting Ebola).
Corporate data sharing holds tremendous promise. But its potential—and limitations—are also poorly understood. In what follows, we share early findings of our efforts to map this emerging open data frontier, along with a set of reflections on how to safeguard privacy and other citizen and consumer rights while sharing. Understanding the practice of shared corporate data—and assessing the associated risks—is an essential step in increasing access to socially valuable data held by businesses today. This is a challenge certainly worth exploring during the forthcoming OpenUp conference!
Understanding and classifying current corporate data sharing practices
Corporate data sharing remains very much a fledgling field. There has been little rigorous analysis of different ways or impacts of sharing. Nonetheless, our initial mapping of the landscape suggests there have been six main categories of activity—i.e., ways of sharing—to date:…
Assessing risks of corporate data sharing
Although the shared corporate data offers several benefits for researchers, public interest organizations, and other companies, there do exist risks, especially regarding personally identifiable information (PII). When aggregated, PII can serve to help understand trends and broad demographic patterns. But if PII is inadequately scrubbed and aggregated data is linked to specific individuals, this can lead to identity theft, discrimination, profiling, and other violations of individual freedom. It can also lead to significant legal ramifications for corporate data providers….”