Various face silhouettes covered in binary code. Credit: Shutterstock
Various face silhouettes covered in binary code.

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised the stakes around public-private data sharing, but we have not learned the lessons of the past. 

After years of pilots, research, workshops and conferences, the major political, economic, ethical, legal and technological obstacles to unlocking privately-held data for public good are well known. Yet this has not translated into an established and reliable system or set of mechanisms and tools for facilitating rapid, frictionless, and trusted public-private data sharing for the COVID-19 response at scale. There are several important efforts underway to address this gap. These efforts have been in development since before the pandemic, but they have not yet reached their full operational potential.

Aiming at advancing the debate and contributing to the ongoing discussions, in 2020 we convened a virtual learning series examining existing operational models for accessing privately held data, to uncover the mechanisms currently relied upon and explore best practices. This learning series brought together people from across 23 organizations in 10 countries, including data users, data holders, intermediaries, researchers, advocates, and donors. 

The learning series highlighted that:

  • Capacity gaps among all stakeholders in public-private data sharing present barriers to successful partnerships, but capacity gaps on the public sector side are doing more to hold back progress and especially governance capacity gaps. 
  • There is a lack of support for countries in navigating governance dimensions and setting up the processes and protocols that ensure safe and responsible data access, management and use. 
  • Finding sustainable business and operational models for private public partnerships remains one of the biggest obstacles for continued access to data, despite years of pilots and pioneering efforts. 

In 2021, we are building on these learnings by a) carrying out a project aimed at increasing government actors' access to and use of privately held data by increasing their governance skills and understanding and b) fostering a discussion around successful business and operational models for ensuring the sustainability of private public partnerships over time

We are currently working with two focus countries––Botswana and Uruguay––mapping end-to-end processes for accessing privately held data, identifying capacity and skills gaps and matching these with available resources and tools. In parallel, and also under the newly launched Data Values project, we are exploring innovative ways of conceiving sustainability of public private partnerships, by uncovering new and innovative business models and by sharing best practices amongst public and private sector stakeholders. 

Read more about our work with Botswana and Uruguay on unlocking privately held data.

Read more about the Data Values Project.

This project is supported by the Hewlett Foundation.


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The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is a nonpartisan, private charitable foundation that advances ideas and supports institutions to promote a better world.

Resources on Unlocking Privately-Held Data for Public Good