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I want to trust you

Eline N. Lincklaen Arriens

Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and do not represent the views of the Support Centre for Data Sharing or the European Commission.

In 2019, we published several opinion pieces discussing trust and data sharing, such as:

  1. Combating consumer distrust in personal data sharing; 1
  2. The balance between convenience and sharing personal information;2 and
  3. Perception of privacy in the East and West against the common good and personal convenience.3

Building on these pieces, I want to continue exploring how the relationship between trust and data sharing. 

As has been discussed people value transparency and are more likely to share data when companies are clear about how that data will be used.4 However, the current data sharing model used by organisations – both businesses and government bodies – lack clarity on what data is being harvested and stored, let alone how and with whom it will be shared with. 

The oxymoron for me around trust and data sharing is that trust facilitates successful data sharing, and, when done correctly, successful data sharing reinforces peoples’ trust in the concept. This strongly reminds me of the chicken or the egg dilemma,5 and there is no clear answer on what we should address first. What we can do, and what has been researched, is how we can continue to build and increase trust in data sharing. One study completed by Chatham House in 20186 identified two important aspects to enable trust in data sharing. Though this study specifically focused on public health surveillance data sharing, its findings are applicable to the concept:

  1. Data sharing should be done in a transparent manner and communities where the data originates from should be informed on how data is being collected, analysed, used, and protected.
  2. Measures need to be taken to build trust between stakeholders, both at a personal and organisational level. This will help to create an environment that can support data sharing. 

Thus, trust can be built when the purpose of data sharing is clear (transparent) to those involved and when both sides understand each other’s expectations and respect their agreement.

Nevertheless, in terms of what comes first – trust or a successful data sharing example – I don’t think it makes that big a difference. Trust is a tricky thing to gain, let alone retain. To misquote Lady Gaga: trust is like a mirror, you can fix it if it breaks but you can still see the crack in its reflection.7 

In an ideal world, we’d start any data sharing venture with 100% trust that it will be good for us, respectful to our privacy and successful with real value to our lives, and build from there. However, we humans are sceptical creatures and our trust needs to be earned and maintained. When a venture starts that involves information on or about us, red flags will shoot up for some people and our brains will immediately imagine the worst-case scenario.

We can’t do much about human nature and past scandals around data sharing. What we can do is continue to move forward, build trust as we go, and learn from previous incidents and studies such as those conducted by Chatham House. There are already several successful data sharing initiatives across the world right now (for examples, explore the SCDS practice example page)8. These initiatives have taken the difficulties regarding trust into consideration and are (indirectly) working towards building trust and creating value and impact to society. Though trust is an arguably elusive and difficult topic, it should not discourage people who want to share data from doing so.