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Building trust in Aotearoa: data and the new normal

aimee whitcroft, Guest Post. 17 April 2020, 7:38 am
Building trust in Aotearoa: data and the new normal

We live in unprecedented times. As we watch existing systems crumble, and new ones rise to take their place, data has never been more important.

Not only data help us better understand and manage the effects of the pandemic sweeping across our globe, it also helps inform us in its aftermath. Data, and the digital economies it supports, are high productivity sectors which offer strong employment opportunities across a very wide range of skills. Now is the time to be building the infrastructure - both physical and digital - to support our recovery, and future growth.

But we have a problem.

Data volumes are growing ever faster each year, and while some organisations and institutions (including governments) are behaving well, many aren't. 

Data is increasingly being exploited by companies and governments to further their own interests which often aren't in our, or the public's, best interest. 

Unsurprisingly then, the idea that data needs trusted stewardship to generate real benefit is gaining traction. Both genuinely, but also for 'trust-washing' purposes.

_How_ to do this, however, is far from easy.

I think that the coalescing concepts of data trusts and other forms of data institutions and collaboratives are a particularly exciting and potentially powerful way to do this.

introducing data trusts+

The concept of 'data trusts' is still very new, so there's no one definitive definition.

A current working definition I quite like, courtesy of the Open Data Institute, is that a data trust is a form of data collaborative, "a legal structure that provides independent stewardship of data".

The ODI goes on to give six  characteristics it believes a data trust should have:

  • a clear purpose
  • a legal structure
  • (some) rights and duties over stewarded data
  • a defined decision-making process
  • a description of how benefits are shared, and
  • sustainable funding.

As the conversation has progressed, people are suggesting that we use the term data trusts only for entities which have fiduciary duties. This won't always be needed or appropriate, of course, so we need to look at other types of data institutions, including data collaboratives and cooperatives, data clubs, and data commons.It's worth mentioning that existing organisations can be data institutions, too: for example, some government agencies.

One thing is clear - data management, categorisation and governance will all be absolutely key to improved, ethical data access. And easy-to-use, repeatable frameworks like data trusts and other such data institutions have enormous potential.

data trusts+ and Aotearoa

What value could these sorts of data institutions have for Aotearoa New Zealand?

How could they help us head off increasing data capture by a few large (and generally exploitative) organisations and companies, allow better flow of data to drive true social / environmental / economic benefit for us all, and retain or even improve our ever-waning trust?

Two mechanisms for joy

I'm most excited about data trusts+ in terms of two primary mechanisms:

  • as a means for individuals and communities to have more say and control over how our data is used, and by whom
  • as a means for private companies, NGOs, and governments to share data through a trusted third party intermediary, where they can't / won't directly due to competitive or other (eg reputational or privacy) concerns.

While I can see ways for pretty much every sector in New Zealand to benefit from data trusts+, here are some primary use-cases. Note that I focus strongly on ethical, life-centred ones.

Māori data sovereignty

Groups and organisations - including government - throughout New Zealand either already see data as taonga, or are beginning to. Data trusts+ could be a valuable way to better unlock data's value for New Zealand, while still protecting it.

Medical data

Rather than the current all-or-nothing situation, we could decide who could do what with which parts of our data, with potentially _huge_ positive benefits for medicine, and therefore all of us.

Artificial intelligence (AI)

New Zealand's artificial intelligence industry (I won't regale you with my "AI isn't AI" rant) isn't doing as well as it could and should be, and one of the reasons for this is lack of access to data. Data trusts+ could potentially be a way for those with data, to share said data with AI-using organisations both more easily and more ethically.

Digital identity

As the debate hots up over who should control our digital identities (and how!) data trusts+ could provide an alternative to some of the current, suboptimal (to my mind) models and possible options, by giving individuals control over the components of their digital identity for different uses, without requiring them to try manage and control every aspect, every time (a nigh-on impossible task even for the highly digitally literate). Certainly, it could mean the Googles and Facebooks and problematic governments of the world could stop being these arbiters. #selfsovereignty


Data trusts+ could provide a means for us to to give consent to government to share data about us - for different use cases - amongst themselves, to build better services and delivery.

Financial data

Groups overseas are beginning to advocate that anonymised personal banking and financial services data should be held in public data trusts.

…and so much more!

These are just a few examples - there are a great many more.

If you're interested I invite you to get in touch and join in the conversation. 

These are disruptive times, but they don't have to be only negative. Let's use our country's energy and talent to work together to build a kinder, stronger more resilient Aotearoa. Data, and the digital economies, are a key part of that.


aimee is an internationally-known advocate for what she calls #openX - open data, open government, civic tech, open access, open source and so on. She mixes these with her passion for privacy advocacy and data governance / strategy. She's an InternetNZ Councillor, Open Data Charter Board member, board member, Data 4D principal and works in and around government, too.

She's also really keen on community, trees and dogs.

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Aimee Whitcroft 17 April 2020, 9:45 am

Other sectors include conservation, agriculture and our other primary industries, Crown Research Institutes and smart cities / digital twins :)

On that last point: smart cities and their next-gen digital cousins, digital twins, both require and generate ever-growing amounts of data. One of the many major issues around this is how to _share_ the data so that it benefits rather than exploits people and systems. Data trusts+ would be a way for government, community, NGO and private sector organisations to steward and share data. Civic data trusts in particular could be really useful here - and there's some great work around this happening here and in Australia.

Gary Mersham 21 April 2020, 12:59 pm

Thanks Aimee for this straightforward description of data trusts - coming at a time when data privacy is challenged by a physical virus.

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