Sasha Baillie speaks at 2020 EU DatathonEvery year since 2017, teams of young people from all over Europe have participated in EU Datathon, an annual open data competition organised by the Publications Office of the EU. Its aim is to create new value for citizens through innovation and promote the use of open data produced by the EU institutions and available on the EU Open Data Portal. Participating teams develop new applications targeted at improving existing services and creating completely new ones. The winners of this year’s edition were announced at a digital event on 15 October. Sasha Baillie, the CEO of Luxinnovation, gave the closing address.

The power of big data

Big data can be immensely useful for our society and economy. “The information and understanding that can be derived from big data can help us improve public services such as transportation and healthcare, and optimise our use of resources,” said Ms Baillie in her speech. “This gives us a tremendous potential to achieve our sustainable development goals. At the same time, it offers very promising business opportunities. Companies can develop new, innovative products and services that correspond to consumers’ real needs and interests. Governments devise efficient policies and systems that improve the quality of life of citizens, which are based on evidence and real-time data instead of incomplete information.”

We can use this knowledge to improve our lives.

In short, she claimed, the optimal use of data can help us understand our own behaviour, and the way our society works and evolves. “We can use this knowledge to improve our lives.”

Access to data: the challenges

The EU Datathon participants base their apps on open data generated by public stakeholders, which is available to anyone. Much data held by private companies could also be a goldmine for entrepreneurs and innovators, provided they could retrieve it. However, in order for them to be able to gain access, several challenges need to be overcome.

“Firstly, most companies are reluctant to make their data available since as they need to ensure that they don’t compromise their competitive advantages and that they protect their intellectual property,” Ms Baillie said. “Besides, they have to guarantee the protection of personal data or else face severe penalties. Secondly, for data to have any potential value for multiple users, it needs to become interoperable. This is a complex technical challenge.”

We need to find a way to render data accessible without compromising personal privacy.

The third challenge concerns privacy protection and is probably the greatest of them all. “Through the internet and the Internet of Things, data can be collected about individuals that can potentially give a quite detailed insight into their private lives. This is extremely worrying and goes against all our fundamental principles of freedom and democracy. Well aware of this, our legislators have endeavoured to prevent this from happening through the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Yet in order to allow us to reap societal and economic benefits from all the data available, we need to find a way to render it accessible without compromising personal privacy.”

“New Deal on Data”

Addressing how these challenges can be managed, Ms Baillie mentioned the “New Deal on Data”, a concept developed by Professor Sandy Pentland of the MIT.  Starting from the fundamental principle that all personal data collected belongs to the individual and not the organisation that has collected it, Professor Pentland’s vision is that everyone should easily be able to obtain a complete overview of the data held on them individually, and be able to choose to render it accessible via so-called regulated data banks.

Such data banks would guarantee a transparent and robust system for handling data and thus increase people’s confidence in allowing their data to be used for a good purpose. “Professor Pentland’s studies have shown that when people obtain a transparent and comprehensive overview of their data, they are more willing to share it, not less,” Ms Baillie pointed out.

Towards a data exchange platform

Luxembourg is one of many European countries willing to rise to the challenge of finding secure and reliable ways of sharing and using data. “In line with our national strategy for data-driven innovation, we are exploring the idea of creating a so-called ‘national data exchange and interoperability platform’,” Ms Baillie explained. “Such a platform, inspired by Professor Pentland’s work, would ensure that data from various producers of data – public institutions, private companies and research organisations – would be usable, interoperable, accessible, reliable and GDPR compliant for data consumers. The consumers of such data could be entrepreneurs and innovators, policy makers and research players.”

We are exploring the idea of creating a so-called ‘national data exchange and interoperability platform’.

In its role as “data steward”, the platform would ensure that the data respects interoperability standards and personal protection regulations, that its origins have been checked and that it is allowed to be used. It would conduct data privacy impact assessments and help establish fair contracts between producers and consumers. The platform would also guarantee proper data governance and have the authority to audit both the data itself and its use.

“This is our vision. It’s a clear statement of Luxembourg’s willingness to be part of Europe’s aim to ensure that the use of data will benefit our economy, democracy and society as a whole. Obviously one country cannot achieve this alone. Luxembourg has many ingredients to set up a solid pilot and act as a test lab, but real impact requires investment and commitment on a much larger scale. European cooperation is key. We are proud to be part of the European initiatives that are moving in the right direction,” Ms Baillie concluded.