Announcing the Data Collaboratives Research Network: Understanding how public value can be generated from private data

by Iryna Susha and Stefaan G. Verhulst

Last week the CUNY College of Staten Island, NY welcomed participants in the Annual International Conference on Digital Government Research (dg.o). This year’s dg.o conference hosted a keynote plenary panel titled “Data Collaboratives: How to Create Value from Data for Public Problem Solving?” The panel brought together academics and practitioners, including, among others, Natalia Adler (UNICEF), Marijn Janssen (TU Delft), Todd Harbour (New York State), Theresa Pardo (University at Albany), and ourselves. The audience consisted of researchers and practitioners in the domains of digital government, political participation, civic engagement, and technology innovation.

What are data collaboratives?

Data Collaboratives are an emerging form of cross-sectoral partnership that seek to leverage generally untapped sources of data (often held by corporate entities) for the greater public good. They bring together actors from a wide variety of backgrounds, seeking to establish mechanisms and institutions for these actors to collaborate in how they access and use the data. The panelists highlighted a number of successful examples, for example the work done by UNICEF and GovLab in setting up data collaborative to better understand childhood obesity in Scotland or suicide rates in India. As part of its research, the GovLab has built a database of ongoing efforts: the Data Collaboratives Explorer lists 100+ cases of data collaboratives from around the world.

Yet despite the growing prevalence of such collaboratives, little research—and certainly little systematic research—has been conducted on their use and impact.  One of the key goals of the panel was to begin a conversation between practitioners and academics to develop a better understanding of the issues—including both opportunities and challenges–at stake. For example, while a variety of different models exist for data collaboratives, there has been little systematic effort to categorize these models (e.g., in a taxonomy of data sharing) and to understand their relative strengths and weaknesses.

The panel focused primarily on the question of value creation by data collaboratives, discussing mechanisms to generate public value as well as the underlying value proposition of data collaborative for both the public and private sectors. According to Stefaan Verhulst data collaboratives can create value in five primary ways:

  • improving situational awareness and response;
  • improving public service design and delivery;
  • enabling more accurate forecasting and prediction;
  • supporting evaluation and impact assessment of policies; and
  • contributing to knowledge creation and transfer between sectors.

A number of obstacles to better value creation were discussed. In particular, it was pointed out that in crisis situations, it is often necessary to access private sector data in real-time or at least very quickly. In practice, however, such access is often very difficult to arrange or negotiate. This is largely due to a mismatch in incentives between corporations and other entities (e.g., in the public sector or civil society), and a lack of compelling value proposition models. The panel discussed a number of possible mechanisms to address such problems, including better data governance, standardisation, enhanced data management practices, and the roles and capabilities required to “orchestrate” an effective data collaborative. A detailed research agenda is under preparation by the panel participants to define and structure future work on such topics.

Join the Data Collaboratives Research Network!

The panel at the dg.o conference clearly showed the value in—and the urgency of—bringing together practitioners and academic to work together on the topic of data collaboratices.

As a next step,  The GovLab invites researchers and practitioners to join the Data Collaboratives Research Network, which will aim to tap and connect expertise on data collaboratives and to work collectively on the challenges, obstacles and opportunities identified.


Iryna Susha is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Informatics of Örebro University.

Stefaan G. Verhulst is the co-founder and Chief of R&D at the GovLab, and lead behind the project