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Digital Governance Act proposes sharing data for the public good and selflessness – the concept of Data Altruism

Raymonde Weyzen

On 25 November 2020, the European Commission published the Data Governance Act (DGA) – a main pillar of the larger European Strategy for Data. Last week’s opinion piece went into detail on the public consultation behind the specific of the document, so I will not do that here. Instead, I will focus on one concept of the Data Governance Act: Data Altruism. The term is coined in the report and describes “data that is made available without reward for purely non-commercial usage that benefits communities or society at large, such as the use of mobility data to improve local transport”1. The proposal mentions several rules and regulations that will enable trusted data altruism. In doing so, it aims to create an environment where citizens and businesses feel safe in sharing their data and know that their data is handled by organisations that operate in line with EU values and principles. Additionally, the regulation presents a uniform format allowing data to be shared across EU Members States in one modular format that can be adjusted to varying needs and requirement, specific to the purpose2.

This seems like a beautiful initiative, but it begs the questions: How to define data altruism? And, when is a company acting purely for non-commercial purposes?

The Commission provides some guidance on this. Namely, an organisation can indicate that they are a data altruism organisation in a public register if they (1) have a not-for-profit character, (2) secure the rights of individuals and businesses, and (3) adhere to several transparency requirements. In doing so, the new European Data Innovation Board, also introduced in the DGA, is expected to play a significant role as an enabler of knowledge exchange between Member States’ authorities and data intermediaries. The Internet of Things Council explains this further by mentioning that, in other for company to qualify as collecting data on altruistic grounds, it will have to:

  • Meet objectives of general interests;
  • Operate on a non-profit bases entirely independently from any for-profit agency; and
  • Ensure a legally sovereign structure;3.

Facilitating free flow of data on the basis of data altruism holds great potential for the public interest. Think of applications such as, healthcare (granted it concerns non-personal data), solutions that combat climate change, resolutions for enhancing mobility across cities, or providing services for the public4.

The data altruism section of the DGA aims to create “pools of data”, big enough for data analytics and machine learnings solutions to exploit,  across the European Union5. If this becomes a reality, scientific research can also truly benefit from this concepts, and technological developments, applied research, can advance.

Currently, it sounds like the European Commission is proposing a moral high ground here, but I wonder how much of this will become reality. Doing for-profit business and capitalism has been the driving force behind our economy for centuries. Sharing data that has no direct benefit to you as an individual, or your company, seems counterintuitive. Granted, this benefit does not necessarily have to be a monetary reward. In order to truly achieve data altruism, or observing companies “donating data for the greater cause”6. I believe there has to be some direct benefit involved that goes beyond merely doing good. Ultimately, we need to benefit one way or the other, and this applies to every party involved in any value chain. Let’s see if the future disproves me.