by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 28 February 2022
Introducing: Jeni Tennison
Background: A data expert bringing open values to the field of data governance.
Idea: ‘Connected by data’ - an open, participatory model of data governance that puts community at the centre of decisions about data.
The current framing of data protection has convinced us to see privacy as the pre-eminent human right, and personal data as personal property. Rules and practices are modelled on the concept of individual consent and assume we are all free-thinking individuals applying personal choice to take full control of our digital lives. This narrative flatters us at an intuitive level. It feels right to take ownership and good to be empowered as sovereigns of our personal data.
But have we converged around the wrong consensus? The narrative of personal choice and ownership of our data is an illusion and an impossibility, not a reality. Data-related problems such as exclusion, exploitation and surveillance will not be solved by the current model. Its individualistic approach fails to take the broader context and needs of our communities into account.
Jeni has been championing open data for well over a decade and has a unique understanding of the barriers holding back data’s potential for society. She is convinced that the consensus around individual consent is the key issue. At an intuitive level, if you consider data as property it becomes something to look after and something you can lose. Your data becomes a risk. The obvious consequence is an understandable distrust of openness and sharing.
Not only is the current model problematic, but it’s also a story of missed opportunity. Your personal data has value when it informs behaviour; far less as a commodity that is bought and sold. That information could be powerful, usable and effective if we aggregate it - together, as communities - but to do so we have to move beyond the model of individual consent towards a more collective, participatory approach to data governance.
Jeni is exploring an alternative model of open and participatory governance with Connected by data. She will engage citizens, organisations and legislators with a new, compelling narrative, underpinned by best practices and legal frameworks. The first step is to help people understand the benefits of deliberative and participative decision-making. But also, to recognise the harms of our acceptance of the status quo.
“It’s important to recognise how organisations influence us through the way they present with choices about data,” says Jeni. “Choices are limited - and deliberately limiting - because the vast majority of people aren’t going to change the default choices they make. There’s a very real element of consent as blackmail: you won’t get to access a service if you don’t agree to the terms and conditions.
“The second piece is to work on practical tools and techniques,” she continues. “I am looking at areas that are already involved in community decision-making - such as citizen juries - and will take inspiration and apply it in the context of data. The aim is to develop a whole menu of tools and techniques to share with organisations and let them choose the most appropriate. This will be interesting and challenging: if you are a small business with limited resources, for example, how will you start building this model into your operations?
“Then, there’s the law. Organisations need encouragement to take these more participatory, collective decision-making approaches to data; legal guidance and policies will give them that. The UK government is looking into data protection law at the moment, which presents an opportunity to develop some legal frameworks around the idea.”
Jeni Tennison: “I’m thrilled to be on the Fellowship and can’t wait to get started as part of the community. Starting out on my own with this new idea is quite daunting and a very different experience from having 60 people around me in my previous role with the Open Data Institute. So I’m really looking forward to getting the support of the fellow community, and also being able to contribute and help others.
“Openness has been part of my life all the way through my career. It’s such an important value. To me, it’s about attitude, how you live. It’s about doing your work openly, being open to other inputs, listening to what other people are doing and incorporating it or building it into your work. Openness is how we make progress and unlock creativity.
“But not everything can be open and not everything open is good. It depends on the circumstances. Understanding the grey areas and risks is part of our openness to other people. We have to take time to hear out their concerns and take them seriously. This is what we will try and do with this project, and bring those open values into the world of data governance.”
We are delighted to welcome Jeni to the Fellowship. She is taking on a challenge that is deeply exploratory in nature but has the potential to evolve into a groundbreaking change to the way we think about data. It is also a chance for her to engage and persuade new people to participate in openness - some of them perhaps for the first time - and develop a new, open framework at the governance and legislative level.
Few people have a deeper understanding of the current landscape and Jeni is exactly the right person to look under the hood, pick this issue apart, and introduce a new approach. There are a number of uncertainties lying in wait, but Jeni has already identified the key barriers to overcome. We are excited to learn alongside her as she tests her theories and develops new techniques, tools and practices to remodel data governance through openness and participation.