ANALYSIS: If data is the new oil, who owns the well? Canadians’ expectations in the age of open data

A recent Ipsos study found that 69 per cent of Canadians agree that when they think about future advances in technology, they are very worried about privacy and the security of their personal information. Getty Images File

By all accounts, open data is being embraced and adopted by governments and businesses around the world.

Governments want to use data to increase accountability and improve services. Businesses want to use data to grow their business and create profits. Governments also have a responsibility to protect the privacy and personal information of their citizens. Can all of these goals co-exist?

From support for innovation to leveraging public sector information to develop consumer and commercial products, the Government of Canada lists seven benefits of its Open Data efforts which began in 2011 with the launch of its Open Data Portal.

IBM was a founding partner of the Open Data Initiative launched in 2015 with a focus “on innovating around the Apache Hadoop open-source core, growing the ecosystem and enabling solutions on a standardized Open Data Platform across the ecosystem partners.”

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Governments around the world are rolling out similar initiatives but what has come of all of this? When we look at the public sector, we can see projects utilizing open data to tackle problems like finding a public washroom in Denmark, reporting potholes in Newfoundland and facilitating an open and transparent election in Burkina Faso.

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So far, much of the skepticism around open data has focused on privacy and security. Governments are responding by developing strict guidelines and comprehensive policies to ensure that the data that’s made available will not put citizens at risk. While privacy is still a concern, government datasets opened to the public have not led to any disasters — yet.

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More open data initiatives are being launched, with more data being offered up in readable and reusable formats. The hope is that entrepreneurs will benefit from access to this new resource and that they will develop solutions that lead to improvements in the public sector as well as economic growth.

But if data is the new oil, the private sector is not the only stakeholder at the table. Governments collect the data, and most importantly, citizens provide much of it.

With only 27 per cent of Canadians agreeing that data collected by government should be given freely to the private sector so that they can create products, services, jobs and economic growth, what does this move to open data mean for citizens and governments?

What citizens think

In a recent Ipsos study —  CanadaNext — we asked Canadians about the changes they expect to see in the next 10 years. What we found was that broadly, privacy and security are still of great concern.

In fact, 69 per cent of Canadians agree that when they think about future advances in technology, they are very worried about privacy and the security of their personal information.

With major data breaches in the news (think Equifax and Yahoo), this is not surprising. Our study was conducted prior to the recent Equifax breach, so it’s notable that 76 per cent of Canadians thought it was likely that there would be a massive personal data leak leading to the demise of a top-10 company. That said, Canadians have accepted that we are moving towards a world driven by data.

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Majorities agree that the following is likely to happen in the next 10 years:

  • Over 50 per cent of Internet traffic will be from household appliances (63 per cent)
  • Half of Canadians will be wearing connected clothes and watches (62 per cent)
  • Over 90 per cent of purchases of $30 or less will not involve cash (80 per cent)
  • Over 75 per cent of all purchases and financial transactions will be through a smartphone (64 per cent)
  • All government services not related to health will be delivered online (77 per cent)

So who do Canadians think should own this data, and who should benefit? Overwhelmingly, the answer is the citizens who generate it. Three-quarters of Canadians (75 per cent) say that data collected by governments should be owned by the citizens they collect it from, and 74 per cent say the same for data collected by private companies.

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It would seem that while privacy and security are still on our minds, we have accepted that the digitization of everything is inevitable, and the real issue is how this new resource will be managed, regulated and profited from.

Seventy-two per cent of Canadians agree that data generated by Canadians should be protected and regulated like a natural resource, and 62 per cent agree that private companies that use public data collected by governments should pay the government a royalty fee.

What is the role of government?

If “Open by Default” is the new mantra, governments will need to tackle not just privacy and security issues; they’ll need to navigate the complex question of who owns the data and who profits from its use.

It is clear where the public stands, and the opportunities for the private sector are endless, but as the broker of this resource, how will governments regulate these exchanges? As the number of data streams and open databases increase, what will be the role of government?

There is the potential that the private sector will leverage this new resource to offer solutions to citizens that governments would traditionally offer.

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While this is changing with a wave of innovation centres and digital transformation initiatives in governments at all levels and around the world, there is still much work to be done before they are able to compete with the rapid and responsive development cycles of private sector firms.

Will governments become data brokers and be edged out of the service delivery game? What will this mean for our democratic institutions?

Sixty per cent of Canadians expect that in the next 10 years, cities that are connected and use big data will be able to allocate resources better and make better decisions – and a majority say the government is responsible for leading this evolution.

But are they equipped to play that role? Is the recent agreement between Toronto and Google’s Sidewalk Labs to create a smart community an example of government outsourcing this responsibility and will it be a model for the future?

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With the vast majority of Canadians agreeing that the data they generate should be protected and regulated like a natural resource, and nearly as many agreeing that private companies that use public data collected by government should pay the government a royalty fee – a future of governments as data brokers does not seem that unrealistic.

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In this scenario, the challenge may not be better and faster government services but managing the delicate balance between data privacy and profitability.

One thing is sure, the tools of the digital age are generating massive amounts of data, forming a resource that will drive the economy and transform our communities. Data has no borders, no clear ownership and its growth seems to have no end in sight.

With three in five Canadians saying that law and government policies are not keeping pace with the changes in technology, and the same number saying that most Canadian companies are poised to take advantage of new technologies to improve the way they run their businesses, governments have some catching up to do.

Jennifer Birch is vice-president, Canada Ipsos Public Affairs.

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