Establishing a Data Trust: It’s Really Hard

By Peter Rabley

In our first blog in this series, Establishing a Data Trust: From Concept to Reality, we identified five key considerations that inform the design of a new framework and approach for creating, storing and accessing mapping data. Since then, we have established more partnerships with governments, advanced our technology platform and furthered work on our governance model.

As we expected from the outset, establishing a data trust for location data is hard. There is no blueprint to follow, the field is still in its infancy and there are few operational trusts from which to learn, let alone any that are focused on mapping data. That said, there is good groundbreaking work being done by organizations that are pioneering new models of data trusts and cooperatives, working on privacy and transparency issues and pushing to make data more open, accessible and equitable.

Given the nascent stages of development for digital data trusts we thought that it would be best to ask the community at-large to help us shape what our operational model should look like. So far it looks like that idea is proving to be the right one as our partners, GovLab and Future State, have been instrumental in helping us develop initial ideas and developing our governance framework through ongoing conversations with government, civil society and private sector leaders globally.

We stood up a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) of the PLACE technical platform to get in the field, work with our local partners, prove the partnership model and begin to get data into the hands of potential users. We are in a constant cycle of learn, iterate and adapt – a process that helps us create the most value for PLACE Trust members.  Just as it would be impossible for us to build our data platform without putting an MVP in the hands of our users, learning and adjusting along the way, we believe the same holds true for the PLACE Trust governance model.  As we broaden the conversation globally and learn more from our continued in-field programmatic work, three key governance objectives seem to be emerging which we need to ensure ground our growing operations. These are:

  1. Trust and legitimacy in balance with speed and efficiencytrust and legitimacy provide the permission needed to operate successfully. It appears we should structure our governance to be aligned around the right incentives to ensure we are held accountable for our actions and decision making while not losing our ability to be agile and financially sustainable.

  2. Participatory decision making in line with values and missionit is important that our membership community be involved in decision making, balancing the need to serve the public interest and maintain operational efficiency.

  3. Harm prevention, ethics and dispute resolution that provide quick, equitable and enforceable decisions: we need mechanisms that allow us to deal with potential unintended negative consequences that might emerge because of decisions made by the data trust and our members and ensure that there are quick, effective and legitimate processes to resolve disputes or rules violations.

When our current round of conversations and ecosystem consultations end, we plan to move ahead by implementing an interim governance structure for PLACE Trust that has been informed by those discussions. We will share it in another blog post, webinars and other venues. From there, we will continue to learn, iterate and adapt the governance structure to meet the challenges that arise as we better understand the needs of our members and the public.

We feel fortunate to have engaged with the teams at GovLab and Future State and grateful for the support of The Rockefeller Foundation that allows us to continue this work and deepen our explorations and engagements across the entire ecosystem. We are pleased with our progress to date, and we are confident we have the right team in place to tackle the challenges ahead.

Yes, it’s really hard work, but we’re more convinced than ever that a data trust for mapping data is critical to unlocking economic, social and environmental opportunities for sustainable growth, development and climate resiliency.

We are eager to hear any thoughts or questions you might have or whether you would like to be part of some of our deliberations – we are always open to new ideas and interesting solutions that may enable a data trust.  Please feel free to reach out to us at [email protected] to learn more.

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