The economics of Business to Government data sharing

Paper by Bertin Martens and Nestor Duch Brown: “Data and information are fundamental pieces for effective evidence-based policy making and provision of public services. In recent years, some private firms have been collecting large amounts of data, which, were they available to governments, could greatly improve their capacity to take better policy decisions and to increase social welfare. Business-to-Government (B2G) data sharing can result in substantial benefits for society. It can save costs to governments by allowing them to benefit from the use of data collected by businesses without having to collect the same data again. Moreover, it can support the production of new and innovative outputs based on the shared data by different users. Finally, the data available to government may give only an incomplete or even biased picture, while aggregating complementary datasets shared by different parties (including businesses) may result in improved policies with strong social welfare benefits.

The examples assembled by the High Level Expert Group on B2G data sharing show that most of the current B2G data transactions remain one-off experimental pilot projects that do not seem to be sustainable over time. Overall, the volume of B2G operations still seems to be relatively small and clearly sub-optimal from a social welfare perspective. The market does not seem to scale compared to the economic potential for welfare gains in society. There are likely to be significant potential economic benefits from additional B2G data sharing operations. These could be enabled by measures that would seek to improve their governance conditions to contribute to increase the overall number of transactions. To design such measures, it is important to understand the nature of the current barriers for B2G data sharing operations. In this paper, we focus on the more important barriers from an economic perspective: (a) monopolistic data markets, (b) high transaction costs and perceived risks in data sharing and (c) a lack of incentives for private firms to contribute to the production of public benefits. The following reflections are mainly conceptual, since there is currently little quantitative empirical evidence on the different aspects of B2G transactions.

  • Monopolistic data markets. Some firms -like big tech companies for instance- may be in a privileged position as the exclusive providers of the type of data that a public body seeks to access. This position enables the firms to charge a high price for the data beyond a reasonable rate of return on costs. While a monopolistic market is still a functioning market, the resulting price may lead to some governments not being able or willing to purchase the data and therefore may cause social welfare losses. Nonetheless, monopolistic pricing may still be justified from an innovation perspective: it strengthens incentives to invest in more and better data collection systems and thereby increases the supply of data in the long run. In some cases, the data seller may be in a position to price-discriminate between commercial buyers and a public body, charging a lower price to the latter since the data would not be used for commercial purposes.
  • High transaction costs and perceived risks. An important barrier for data sharing comes from the ex-ante costs related to finding a suitable data sharing partner, negotiating a contractual arrangement, re-formatting and cleaning the data, among others. Potentially interested public bodies may not be aware of available datasets or may not be in a position to handle them or understand their advantages and disadvantages. There may also be ex-post risks related to uncertainties in the quality and/or usefulness of the data, the technical implementation of the data sharing deal, ensuring compliance with the agreed conditions, the risk of data leaks to unauthorized third-parties and exposure of personal and confidential data.
  • Lack of incentives. Firms may be reluctant to share data with governments because it might have a negative impact on them. This could be due to suspicions that the data delivered might be used to implement market regulations and to enforce competition rules that could negatively affect firms’ profits. Moreover, if firms share data with government under preferential conditions, they may have difficulties justifying the foregone profit to shareholders, since the benefits generated by better policies or public services fuelled by the private data will occur to society as a whole and are often difficult to express in monetary terms. Finally, firms might be afraid of entering into a competitive disadvantage if they provide data to public bodies – perhaps under preferential conditions – and their competitors do not.

Several mechanisms could be designed to solve the barriers that may be holding back B2G data sharing initiatives. One would be to provide stronger incentives for the data supplier firm to engage in this type of transactions. These incentives can be direct, i.e., monetary, or indirect, i.e., reputational (e.g. as part of corporate social responsibility programmes). Another way would be to ascertain the data transfer by making the transaction mandatory, with a fair cost compensation. An intermediate way would be based on solutions that seek to facilitate voluntary B2G operations without mandating them, for example by reducing the transaction costs and perceived risks for the provider data supplier, e.g. by setting up trusted data intermediary platforms, or appropriate contractual provisions. A possible EU governance framework for B2G data sharing operations could cover these options….(More)”.