Communication can make or break a data sharing initiative. For data sharing to be trusted, successful communication between data partners and with the public is paramount. Lessons from past initiatives, such as Sidewalk Toronto, suggest that failure to communicate clearly and effectively with the public can lead to the end of data sharing efforts, due to insufficient trust and high resistance from citizens.

For this reason, new data sharing initiatives need to invest considerably in establishing the right approaches to communicating with stakeholders. 

Similarly to building and maintaining trust, communication among partners is facilitated by instances of previous successful collaboration. When new communication channels need to be established, mechanisms such as stakeholder consultations or workshops can be beneficial at the kick-off stage to start dialogue. Investments in communication among partners, however, cannot be relegated to the inception phase and must continue throughout the initiative.

Approaches to ensure effective communication include relying on organizational champions or data stewards,investing in communication throughout the lifespan of the initiative, and establishing dialogue with civil society and citizens right from the start and on a recurring basis.

Organizational champions — data stewards

Sharing data often requires a shift in the cultural mindset of top leadership. It can be hard to secure buy-in from organizations given the sensitivity with which organizations guard their data, along with the cost of data sharing in terms of investment in staff and funding. Having a champion among the key partners of the initiative or within the sector who is outspoken about the potential benefits of data sharing can help establish credibility and support. 

For example, the California Data Collaborative, discussed in the preceding section, found its champion in the General Manager of a water district in California who endorsed the project and advocated for the value of data collaboratives from the beginning. Her outreach to her peers helped the initiative gain buy-in from other organizations across the sector.

The role of communicating the benefits of data sharing can also be given to data stewards, individuals or teams within data-holding organizations who are empowered to proactively initiate, facilitate, and coordinate data collaboratives in the public’s interest. The existence of data stewards is considered a key success factor in setting up sustainable and responsible business-to-government partnerships in the European Union. Such findings are transferable to data sharing within the development sector.

Investments in communication throughout the life span of the initiative — Hong Kong Data Trust 1.0

The Hong Kong Data Trust 1.0 discussed previously was established to promote data sharing among transport providers to inform policy. To address reluctance from transport providers to share commercially valuable data, the Data Trust engaged in communication with the stakeholders for 18 months prior to launching the initiative through consultations, workshops, roundtables, knowledge cafes, and regular newsletters.

These consultations allowed players to engage with each other and to understand the permissible use cases of data sharing and the resulting value exchange. They also provided stakeholders with a forum to exchange and discuss their concerns, and clearly identify the permissible use cases for the initiative.

Most of these communication channels have persisted after the inception phase, ensuring that partners keep up formal and informal exchanges.

Establishing a dialogue with civil society and citizens*

Analysis of existing data sharing initiatives within the development sector showed that very few invest in communication activities targeted toward concerned communities or the broader public. In many instances, citizens are not informed about their data being used (even if in anonymized or aggregated form) in the context of public-private data sharing partnerships. This has resulted in public backlash once partnerships have been established, as the scandal over a data sharing agreement between the United Kingdom’s National Health Services and U.S.-based company Palantir shows. 

Effective, clear, and ongoing communication with the public is often costly and difficult to implement. The stakes of not communicating, however, are high, and data sharing initiatives need to undertake the effort, both because it is part of trust-building processes and because informing the public is a first and necessary step to enabling accountability and public scrutiny.

There are few examples of initiatives investing time and effort in communicating with wider audiences, although some have begun to incorporate this approach into their activities. For instance, during the kick-off phase of a data sharing project in The Gambia, Spatial Data Commons together with The Gambian Bureau of Statistics and the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority organized a multi-stakeholder workshop for the private sector, government ministries and agencies, academia, civil society, and development partners. The workshop was intended to inform stakeholders about the prospective project, to present the use case for accessing mobile network operators’ data, and to air potential concerns at the beginning stages of the project.

*more research, experimentation and/or knowledge exchange is needed.