The coronavirus has brought data, and data sharing, to the forefront of our lives like never before. But as COVID-19 case data, unemployment statistics, mortality rates, and other figures continue to dominate people’s daily lives, not least government decision-makers who are responsible for leading response and recovery, this new focus on data has revealed some cracks in the system – cracks that haven’t been addressed despite many pilots and experience from past public health crises like the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Private companies hold vast amounts of data that can inform response in various ways, and governments and NGOs need this data to shape policies that are based on evidence and are able to protect everyone, including the most vulnerable people in our societies. However, no one government agency, company, hospital, or health department can do this alone, and these circumstances have revealed the limits of our frameworks and digital tools for the collaborative data partnerships that we need to respond adequately while protecting privacy and preventing harms from unethical data use.

So, what does public-private data sharing in the time of COVID-19 tell us about the potential for responsible use of private data for public good in the future?

To explore these questions, we invited expert practitioners to participate in a four-part virtual learning series. We were motivated by a desire to foster learning across sectors and projects that often work in silos, to create a space for practitioners to learn-while-doing rather than waiting for the crisis to be over, and to ensure we could distill lessons for the future. We also wanted to build on the body of evidence pointing to persistent technical, governance, economic, and capacity barriers that have held back responsible public private data sharing at scale.

The series took place from mid-May to mid-July and brought together 32 people from 23 organizations, including data users, data holders, intermediaries, researchers, advocates, and donors, coming from 10 countries. After the deep dive into data sharing partnerships, the sessions revealed particularly strong needs and challenges from the public sector data users. The discussions pointed to recommendations in three categories:

1. Understand the people behind these partnerships and what they need to succeed

Data sharing partnerships must consider the complex landscape of data users, from managers and decision-makers to analysts. Data sharing partnerships for COVID-19 were established quickly, and public sector data users are struggling to find guidance and advice across a range of technical and governance challenges. They require training and support that is better tailored to their unique needs, from technical skills including interpreting, understanding, and communicating the insights derived from data to the political, governance, and ethical aspects of data sharing partnerships.

Notwithstanding these needs, there is a vast landscape of tools, guidance materials, and other support available. However, we need to better understand if these tools are reaching their intended audiences, and find ways to connect users to the support they need.

2. Toward sustainability: understanding and communicating the value of data sharing

Companies and governments are finding that they still cannot agree on financially sustainable models to sustain data sharing partnerships, in part because the demand is not strong enough. Decision-makers in government are increasingly seeing the value of privately held data, but until we can clearly explain what problem it will help solve, or what service it will help deliver, busy decision-makers will not invest. For many years, practitioners have been grappling with how to align public and private incentives around sustainable business models for data sharing. The combined learning shared during this series suggests that there is a lot more work to be done to align incentives and underscore the potential for mutual benefit.

Developing and building consensus on data valuation methodologies and getting better at assessing the impact of data sharing partnerships will also be critical to building the case. Improved communications and data literacy are also needed.

3. Build common infrastructures with the user in mind

There is wide support for infrastructures, frameworks, or platforms that can support data sharing at scale by providing parameters for responsible data use, common standards and protocols for data access and exchange, and a pathway to sustainable business models. Several organizations are working towards this, but it remains a long-term aspiration and therefore is not addressing the acute needs of government data users. As these efforts proceed, it is critical to ensure that infrastructures are informed by user needs and work to deliver against them in the short-term while designing for the long-term. 

The way forward

The outcomes of this learning series resonate very strongly with other aspects of the Global Partnership’s work: many of our government partners have considerable needs for training and other forms of advice, peer learning, and partnership brokering. Meanwhile, solutions offered by private sector partners do not always respond to genuine user needs. We will integrate this learning into our work, keeping user needs at the center of our advocacy, knowledge sharing, and brokering. Data increases in value the more it is used, so keeping user needs at the forefront is essential.

We will also keep facilitating collaborative learning. The discussion produced rich insights because of the diversity of practitioner perspectives and the real-time nature of the learning, as it occurred alongside ongoing initiatives that are constantly evolving. We learned a lot about the dynamics of real-time virtual learning and will carry these lessons into future work.

The Global Partnership is committed to building vibrant data ecosystems that thrive on multi-stakeholder collaboration, foster innovation, and learn from experience. What have you learned from data sharing in the time of COVID-19? And do you have ideas for sharing this learning across the community? If so, send us a note!

This work was made possible with support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Read the full report here.