Use our personal data for the common good

Hetan Shah at Nature: “Data science brings enormous potential for good — for example, to improve the delivery of public services, and even to track and fight modern slavery. No wonder researchers around the world — including members of my own organization, the Royal Statistical Society in London — have had their heads in their hands over headlines about how Facebook and the data-analytics company Cambridge Analytica might have handled personal data. We know that trustworthiness underpins public support for data innovation, and we have just seen what happens when that trust is lost….But how else might we ensure the use of data for the public good rather than for purely private gain?

Here are two proposals towards this goal.

First, governments should pass legislation to allow national statistical offices to gain anonymized access to large private-sector data sets under openly specified conditions. This provision was part of the United Kingdom’s Digital Economy Act last year and will improve the ability of the UK Office for National Statistics to assess the economy and society for the public interest.

My second proposal is inspired by the legacy of John Sulston, who died earlier this month. Sulston was known for his success in advocating for the Human Genome Project to be openly accessible to the science community, while a competitor sought to sequence the genome first and keep data proprietary.

Like Sulston, we should look for ways of making data available for the common interest. Intellectual-property rights expire after a fixed time period: what if, similarly, technology companies were allowed to use the data that they gather only for a limited period, say, five years? The data could then revert to a national charitable corporation that could provide access to certified researchers, who would both be held to account and be subject to scrutiny that ensure the data are used for the common good.

Technology companies would move from being data owners to becoming data stewards…(More)” (see also