Big Data Ownership
The multi-stakeholder data initiatives claim that they make the data they produce from a host of new sources – like cell phones, satellite imagery, bank accounts – totally open and available to NSOs. In countries that lack the capacity to measure progress through expensive and time-consuming conventional means, such as surveys and questionnaires, the partnership approach is clearly attractive.
To be sure, there could be much to gain for NSOs, struggling to find a way to measure progress on 17 SDGs with upwards of 340 indicators in the 2030 Agenda. Indicators that gauge public perceptions, for example, can much more efficiently be measured by professional polling firms, such as Gallup, while indicators of financial inclusion are more efficiently measured by cell phone deposits or credit card subscriptions. But different stakeholders have different rights and responsibilities. Governments are not just one of many stakeholders in these global partnerships but have responsibilities to implement policy, informed by statistics, to achieve the SDGs and will be held accountable for their commitments and performance.
The extent to which governments have enduring rights to analyse data generated through these initiatives largely is influenced by how skillfully they are able to negotiate the terms of the partnership, including the length of its duration. Licensing of phone companies and regulation of credit card services, for example, is done by government. GPSDD, Data2X and DIAL serve as platforms to put governments and corporations together to negotiate a deal – which means that NSOs can offer some useful analysis to companies which in turn continue to give them data access. But in reality the terms of such contracts are also subject to trade and investment rules and intellectual property rights, while Freedom of Information obligations apply only to the public sector, not the private. Additionally, the length of commitment ultimately depends on success of these companies in realizing return on investment – for example, on cell phone users continuing to periodically upgrade in order to continue to be able to pay for service. Should its business no longer be viable, presumably, the firm would pull out.
On GPSDD funded initiatives
Among these projects, one is headed by a UN entity – Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA). The Activity  is to Advance Civil Registration and Vital Statistics Systems in the Service of Syrian Refugees. Its collaborating organizations include WHO, UNICEF and a Norwegian research foundation with technical support from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium.
What are implications of a UN entity entering into a research partnership in which its results will be wholly owned by the World Bank under US Copyright law? Who is held accountable for increasing civil registrations?
How to disentangle the blended or obscured governance and reporting responsibilities that result from bilateral agreements between the secretariat of partnerships (UNF) of over 100 data champions and the World Bank?
Where does the responsibility rest for the due diligence needed to protect the mission as well as the credibility of the United Nations, both as a participant and endorser of the GPSDD?
Going beyond access to the question of re-use rights the situation gets more complicated. The World Bank, for example, has its own internal requirements regarding the openness of its data, but does not entirely follow them. Countries and UN agencies that partner with the Bank on reports and on different goals do not always have right to publish the results of this work, as the World Bank may retain those rights.
Ownership of SDG Indicators
More problematic however, is the FAO-Gallup partnership, which involves two SDG indicators that will be used for monitoring and accountability of Member States in implementing the SDGs. A Gallup press release states:
Gallup, on behalf of its clients at the World Bank and the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), collects data through its World Poll on the topics of financial inclusion and food insecurity that the two organizations use to inform SDG indicators 8.10.2 and 2.1.2, respectively. …Through the “Voices of the Hungry,” a collaborative project between Gallup and the FAO, Gallup supports FAO’s monitoring of global progress toward the goal to “end hunger (and) achieve food security.” (http://news.gallup.com/opinion/gallup/193892/gallup-helps-track-progress-hunger-financial-inclusion.aspx)
Although Gallup makes clear that “national institutions” can use the project’s data base, called the Food Insecurity Experience Scale, ultimately the Gallup organization owns the data. However, the official data used to report on progress on the SDGs is meant to be owned by NSOs, a point frequently repeated by all players, from the Statistical Commission to UN agencies, from the World Bank to mobile phone companies.
The use or private sector firms to collect data can divert badly needed funds from the NSOs, despite the expressed concern about the need for capacity building for these offices. It also uses taxpayer money and should make the data available to the public. This concern has been recognized in Mexico, where Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI) is legally required to make all data publicly available, but few countries have similar legislation.
What is the UN advocating? How are UN agencies putting in place standards and safeguards or are they avoiding this critical question? How can participants in public-private partnerships ensure public sector access to data generated by or in partnership with the commercial sector?