This is the third in a series on data-sharing between public and private sectors focusing on emerging approaches and uncovering key lessons for regions and stakeholders around the world. Last time, Martina wrote about the identity crisis facing Mobile Network Operators around the world that, despite similar opportunities and challenges, are developing diverse approaches to sharing data with governments and private companies.

Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) are at a crossroads: They have data that governments can use to make better decisions but no clear models for sharing that data. This post  looks into a hypothetical crystal ball to imagine how solutions that MNOs are considering might evolve and translate into real-world scenarios for data sharing. If we specifically consider data sharing between MNOs and the public sector, a number of scenarios or trajectories appear: 

  • Regulatory or legislative data sharing mandates: If MNOs in the coming years strongly resist voluntary data sharing with the public sector, governments may be tempted to create legislation to gain access. This is already happening in the European Union where proposed legislation would mandate business-to-government information exchanges through the proposed Data Act. It’s easy to envision other governments following this path. The regulatory approach gives certainty of access to the public sector but raises a number of questions in terms of proportionality and data protection. 
  • Collaborative routes: If more MNOs decide to share data for public good with the public sector, the number of public-private partnerships (PPPs) will increase substantially. The proliferation of such partnerships will require more in-depth discussions about operational and business models, incentives and resourcing for these initiatives as well as long term strategies for sustainability. Along this route, many different types of partnerships will emerge depending on how challenges are addressed. 
  • Profit models via the business highway: To increase efficiency of investments and economies of scale, an increasing number of MNOs could also build data platforms and pipelines aimed at selling data and related services to the private sector. In this case, the public sector will face pressure to use these same infrastructure systems and conform to the rules and business models created for private players. Public authorities could then have less freedom to negotiate specific data sharing agreements and would likely face greater pressure from MNOs to adopt commercial models. MNOs, in fact, may struggle to justify to private clients why public agencies should get the same access to data at lower costs. 

These scenarios are not mutually exclusive. In fact, most are already happening to different extents depending on where MNOs are operating in the world. While we can’t predict the future, here are likely consequences of these scenarios for the public sector:

  • Public sector entities will have to strengthen data-related capacity. Whether public authorities follow regulatory or collaborative routes to sharing data, local public agencies will have to considerably strengthen their capacity to understand and put in place adequate pipelines to share data with MNOs and the private sector more broadly, both via sustainable business models and through legislation. 
  • Legislators will have to carefully define what data is most needed. While the importance and usefulness of MNOs’ data for the public sector is likely to increase in the coming years, public authorities will have to walk a thin line between asking too much and asking too little from MNOs if countries pursue legislative measures to mandate data sharing. Proportionality of measures must be ensured for the public sector not to disproportionately affect MNOs in their business models and digital transformation.  This is currently reflected in the debate around the Data Act currently taking place in Europe. 
  • Public officials and institutions will have to improve or rebuild public trust. Regardless of which data sharing scenarios emerge as dominant in the future, citizens’ trust in governmental use of data collected by MNOs will be a paramount concern. As governments’ data driven-responses to COVID-19 have highlighted, people do not automatically trust their governments to use MNOs’ data. The public sector needs to start building trust now by engaging with citizens in dialogue around data values and putting the right safeguards in place to protect people from government abuse and misuse of data. Ensuring that benefits of data use are felt by people and that feedback loops exist could also contribute to increasing trust. 

It’s clear from this thought experiment that the public sector should step up efforts to build capacity in this domain. No public authority will be able to take advantage of opportunities for data driven decision making without understanding the governance, legal, and operational challenges underpinning public access to privately held data. This is especially true for MNO data. These skills are crucial for the modernization of the public sector and for addressing the growing data power imbalances between public and private stakeholders. 

  • Martina Barbero is Policy Manager at the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data.