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Details of 'data trust' pilots revealed

Ways of using innovative legal structures to enable data to be put to use to solve some of society's problems are to be explored in three new projects that have been backed by the UK government.31 Jan 2019

Details of the pilots, which are being led by the Open Data Institute (ODI) in partnership with the UK Office for AI (OAI), were announced by the UK's digital, culture, media and sport secretary Jeremy Wright on Thursday.

Each of the projects will explore the concept of 'data trusts' in different ways. The ODI's working definition of a 'data trust' is "a legal structure that provides independent third-party stewardship of data".

Jeni Tennison, ODI chief executive, said: "Increasing access to data can help people, communities and organisations make better and more timely decisions – such as which energy supplier to use, the route a bus should take, or whether to invest in creating a new product. But the people and organisations that have data, use it, and are affected by its use need to trust that it is stewarded well and shared equitably and for agreed purposes."

"Data trusts are one potential way to increase sharing of data and unlock more social and economic benefits from data while protecting other interests such as people’s privacy, corporate confidentiality or, as in the pilot we’re doing on data about endangered animals, our environment," she said.

In the first pilot, the ODI will work with WILDLABS to explore how a data trust model can be used to make video and audio captured in wildlife settings by researchers and conservationists more accessible, with the long term goal of using the data to reduce illegal trade of wildlife.

Data and technology law expert Chris Martin of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com which is working with the ODI and OAI on two of the pilots, including the wildlife project, said that "quality and relevant data is essential to the development of algorithms used in artificial intelligence and machine learning solutions".

"This pilot looks at how we can use a data trust model to open up the availability of data which has already been collected," Martin said. "In doing so, we allow the creation of new technologies which may, for example, be able to identify illegally traded wildlife in environments such as border control in the UK and around the world."

The second pilot will see the ODI partner with WRAP, a not for profit organisation which works with governments, businesses and citizens to create a world in which we source and use resources sustainably. The data trust model will be applied to food supply chain data with the aim of reducing food waste by improving the ability of retailers and manufacturers to track and measure food waste within supply chains.

The initiative ties in to the UN's stated sustainable development goal of halving per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reducing food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses, by 2030. It has been estimated that food loss and waste costs the global economy $940 billion every year.

In the third pilot, Royal Borough of Greenwich and Greater London Authority will jointly explore how information such as energy consumption data collected by sensors and devices in buildings, data about parking space occupancy and on the availability of charging bays for electric vehicles might be made available through a data trust.

Setting out details of the plans, Wright said: "Technology is already making our lives easier in many ways but there is still so much untapped potential that we can deliver for social good. As a world-leader in emerging technologies, the UK is best placed to foster these opportunities. The new policies announced today, backed by new funding, will encourage industry to deliver technological innovation to address issues as diverse as animal poaching, food waste and loneliness."

The government's interest in the potential of data trusts has been expressed previously.

Last year, in a paper in which it set out its views on the role, objectives and focus of the new Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI), it acknowledged there is support within academia and the business community for "the development of frameworks such as data trusts" to improve access to data and in turn support "research and innovation in AI". While there were no other explicit references to 'data trusts' in that paper, the government did state that the work of the CDEI could encompass "working with stakeholders to identify and assess effective and ethical frameworks for sharing data".

The potential of data trusts was also highlighted in a government-commissioned review into how to grow the AI industry in the UK. Data trusts can help "facilitate the sharing of data between organisations holding data and organisations looking to use data to develop AI", that review said.