Data holds much more than oil, and it’s coming to Geneva

(Credit: Robynne Hu/ Unsplash)

Organisations have been seeking to understand data and shape the way it’s being used for over 30 years. A new organisation wants to change how we think about it.

Every time we pick up our phones, send an email or read an article online, we generate data, an asset so abstract, it can’t be compared to anything else. As the number of digital users increases, so does the amount of data we produce and the opportunities it holds. The Datasphere Initiative, a new project currently based in France and launched on Tuesday by the Paris-based Internet and Jurisdiction Policy Network, seeks to understand how to take advantage of all that information. 

Encouraging the use of renewable energies by mapping resources around the world, improving education by highlighting gaps in results, alerting citizens about armed violence by flagging them on an app, developing cancer research by unifying knowledge on one platform, and predicting the melting of glaciers with satellite images are among the 261 projects which the initiative maps in its Datasphere Governance Atlas. But beyond success stories, data also holds challenges, especially around the rights of those that produce it. 

The aim of the Datasphere Initiative is to partner with governments, the private sector and foundations who work with the world of data – the datasphere – to rethink how it is governed and used. “The first step is to understand data,” Lorrayne Porciuncula, executive director of Datasphere Initiative, tells Geneva Solutions.

Currently in the process of registering as a non-profit organisation in Switzerland, the initiative is planning on moving to Geneva in the coming months. “We are working very closely with different agencies, and we now need to connect those dots. Geneva is an incredible hub for that to happen,” says Porciuncula.

Switzerland was the first government to finance the Internet and Jurisdiction Policy Network, an organisation addressing the tensions between national policies and the internet’s ubiquity. Its new initiative has also received Swiss funding.

Rethinking data

Data isn’t as scarce or rivalrous as oil, which it is often compared to, neither is it as free as the atmosphere we breathe, according to experts speaking at the initiative’s launch event. “Maybe, to highlight the uniqueness of data, there is no good analogy,” suggested Michael Kende, senior fellow and visiting lecturer at the Graduate Institute. 

Finding a common terminology and methodology are issues at the heart of the Datasphere Initiative which requires bringing together data actors around cross-sectoral dialogues, maps such as the atlas, and hubs to test governance. While its creators were concerned about the difficulty of this task, “surprisingly, it was ok”, says Porciuncula and explains why: “There is a lack of space to connect different actors and there’s good work being done and we just need to build on it.”

Some of the challenges the organisation will have to work on were highlighted at the launch event. For Kassy Raymond, a fellow of the initiative who works on animal disease data to predict protein availability, ambiguous data can be misinterpreted. “When different sources use different words to describe the same data, it’s very difficult to compare data,” she says.

“The real work actually starts when the data set is released,” adds Renata Avila, chief executive of the Open Knowledge Foundation, an NGO in the United Kingdom. “Sometimes, we spend so much time reducing frictions in data sets, that we end up not being able to use the data.”

Geographical inequalities are also huge. “Data is a key economic and a strategic resource,” says Shamika Sirimanne, director at the UN Conference for Trade and Development’s division on technology and logistics, “and there is a very unequal situation in the world in terms of the ability to harness data for economic and social value”.

This disparity is reflected in the initiative's partners, which include some of the world’s most competitive countries – Germany, Japan and Switzerland – and its biggest data players Google and Microsoft. When asked about independence in the face of these giants, the Datasphere Initiative’s leader is unequivocal. “We need to engage those platforms because they are norm setters around the world,” she says “but we have a strict framework for fundraising of 30 per cent government, 30 per cent private sector, 30 per cent foundations so that there is a balance and one actor isn’t overpowering another”.

Data privacy concerns

In Switzerland, the rise of cyberattacks leading to the data breach of thousands of personal information and the criticism the country attracted for its decision to store government data abroad have exacerbated concerns around privacy and big data. A supporter of a Swiss privacy technology launched recently, and a staunch defender of data privacy known for blowing the whistle on the American army in 2013, Chelsea Manning told Swissinfo in a recent interview: “People are aware of their privacy being violated but they have an expectation that someone else will come and fix this problem – either the government or a civil rights organisation or a supranational agency like the European Union. It hasn't played out that way.”

Still, Porciuncula remains positive. “There is an ultra-focus on privacy, which of course is a very important element, but it’s not the only dimension of data,” she says and concludes by adding: “We’d like to go beyond that and look at opportunities. It’s a refreshing position to be optimistic if you’ve been working on tech.”