Wanted: Data Stewards: (Re-)Defining The Roles and Responsibilities of Data Stewards for an Age of Data Collaboration

By Stefaan G. Verhulst, Andrew Zahuranec, Andrew Young, and Michelle Winowatan

This article was originally published in Data & Policy, the peer-reviewed, open access venue dedicated to the potential of data science to address important policy challenges.

As data grows increasingly prevalent in our economy, it is increasingly clear, too, that tremendous societal value can be derived from reusing and combining previously separate datasets. One avenue that holds particular promise are data collaboratives. Data collaboratives are a new form of partnership in which data (such as data owned by corporations) or data expertise is made accessible for external parties (such as academics or statistical offices) working in the public interest. By bringing together a wide range of inter-sectoral expertise to bear on the data, collaboration can result in new insights and innovations, and can help unlock the public good potential of previously siloed data or expertise.

Yet, not all data collaboratives are successful or go beyond pilots. Based on research and analysis of hundreds of data collaboratives, one factor seems to stand out as determinative of success above all others — whether there exist individuals or teams within data-holding organizations who are empowered to proactively initiate, facilitate and coordinate data collaboratives toward the public interest. We call these individuals and teams “data stewards.”

They systematize the process of partnering, and help scale efforts when there are fledgling signs of success. Data stewards are essential for accelerating the re-use of data in the public interest by providing functional access, and more generally, to unlock the potential of our data age. Data stewards form an important — and new — link in the data value chain.

In its final report, the European Commission’s High-Level Expert Group on Business-to-Government (B2G) Data Sharing also noted the need for data stewards to enable responsible, accountable data sharing for the public interest. In their report, they write:

“A key success factor in setting up sustainable and responsible B2G partnerships is the existence, within both public- and private-sector organisations, of individuals or teams that are empowered to proactively initiate, facilitate and coordinate B2G data sharing when necessary. As such, ‘data stewards’ should become a recognised function.”

The report goes on further to acknowledge the need to scope, design, and establish a network or a community of practice around data stewardship.

Wanted: Data Stewards

A new position paper, released by The GovLab within the context of the UN Statistical Commission High-Level Forum on Official Statistics which focused on “Data stewardship — a solution for official statistics’ predicament?” seeks to begin that work. The paper, titled “Wanted: Data Stewards: (Re-)Defining The Roles and Responsibilities of Data Stewards for an Age of Data Collaboration” tackles questions regarding the profile and potential of data stewards. It aims to provide an operational roadmap to support the implementation (or expansion) of data stewardship functions in public- and private-sector entities; and to start building a community of expertise.

Moreover, it addresses the tendency to conflate the roles of data stewards with those of individuals or groups who might better be described as chief privacy, chief data or chief security officers. This slippage is perhaps understandable, we need to redefine the role that is somewhat broader. While data management, privacy and security are key components of trusted and effective data collaboratives, the real goal is to re-use data for broader social goals (while preventing any potential harms that may result from sharing).

In particular the position paper — which captures lived experience of numerous data stewards- seeks to provide more clarity on how data stewards can accomplish these duties by:

  • Defining the responsibilities of a data steward; and
  • Identifying the roles which a data steward must fill to achieve these responsibilities

Responsibilities and Roles of Data Stewards

According to the position paper, data stewards have three responsibilities. First, they collaborate, working with others to unlock the value of data when a clear public interest case exists. Second, they protect customers, users, corporate interests, and the public from harm that might come from sharing or use. Third, they act, ensuring relevant parties put the insights generated to use.

These responsibilities manifest in the five roles that a data steward must fill. These roles are:

  • Partnership and Community Engagement, to reach out and vet potential partners while also informing beneficiaries of insights generated from efforts.
  • Internal Coordination and Staff Engagement, to coordinate actors internally and gain sign-off from them.
  • Data Audit, Ethics, and Assessment of Value and Risk, to monitor and assess the value, potential, and risk of all data held within an organization.
  • Dissemination and Communication of Findings, to act as the “face” of the company’s data projects and communicate shared outcomes to external actors.
  • Nurture Data Collaboratives to Sustainability, to work with stakeholders to gather the needed resources and support for broad, long-term impact.

Next steps

Moving forward, The GovLab will engage with a broad set of stakeholders to explore the issues raised above and finetune the roles and responsibilities of data stewards integrating lived experience. In particular we will seek to understand if and whether there are any differences between data stewards in the private and public sector; and what are common challenges or practices.

We will seek to help implement data stewards within organizations as to make data collaboration and data responsibility to be more systemic, sustainable, and responsible.

Finally, we will examine the creation of a formal network of data stewards — as pledged and recommended for the High Level Expert Group. Toward that end The GovLab, and a dedicated scoping group, will seek to hold one or more data stewards camps or workshops to further the design features and prototype possible organisational and governance structures. Among the areas that will be considered further are the following.

  • Need and incentives: what are or could be the incentives of data stewards/corporations to join the network?
  • Metrics: what would success look like? Organisationally? Societal impact? Market shaping impact? Raising the bar?
  • Governance: What should the governance structure look like for the network? What can we learn from other models?
  • Operations: How to structure the network? Where to locate it (in existing associations or a new organisation?) What innovative models of organisations would work here?
  • Sustainability and funding model: How to ensure long-term sustainability? What should be the funding model?

Organizations and individuals interested in joining this work can contact [email protected] to learn more.

They can also continue to follow the Data Stewards Network for updates on The GovLab’s latest research on the subject.