Data Sharing — Yes, No, Maybe?

January 24, 2019


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data sharing

The amount of data that has been collected over the past decade is astounding. From an estimated 0.8 zettabytes (1021 or one trillion gigabytes) in 2009 to approximately 35 ZB today, it seems like there is no end in sight. Data has taken on tremendous value in many public and private sectors, from government to academia, healthcare, utilities, manufacturing and many more.

Unfortunately, however, it is just as easy to abuse data as it is to put it to good use. Thus, there are more and more regulations being put into place to protect our personal data, ensuring that it is being used transparently by the data collector for clearly stated purposes and is being protected from hackers.

Today there is also a growing awareness that the value of data could be multiplied by breaking down proprietary silos and sharing data freely for research, analytics, and other important purposes. In this blog we look at the challenges and the opportunities of sharing data, with an emphasis on the utilities sector.

Why Share Data

The costs of data collection and storage by corporations have been going down while the value of data has been going up. Today most of that data is being used exclusively by the data collector. Just imagine, though, if all the world’s water, gas and electric smart meter data were shared with scientists. We could go beyond using this data for local or regional purposes to gaining new insights into global warming and other troubling natural phenomena.

The utilities sector can take a lesson from other verticals that have started opening up their data to third parties. Recently we have seen more and more data from pharmaceutical clinical trials being shared with medical researchers. In addition, there are some companies that are opening the gates to their data for “public good” such as humanitarian causes and assistance in developing countries. [1]

Consumer Rights Regarding Their Data

While there is no one set of international regulations regarding data privacy, most countries have rules stating that people’s personal data should be used “fairly, lawfully and transparently.” That having been said, it is interesting to note that data protection laws in the United States still do not provide Americans with the right to access the data being kept about them, or to demand that their data be deleted. [2]

In addition to the national and international laws concerning data privacy, many verticals have unique and stringent data protection guidelines that have either been imposed by regulators or that they have taken on voluntarily. These verticals include banking and other financial institutions, healthcare, and utilities.

In December of 2017 the Advanced Energy Management Alliance (AEMA), a non-profit organization that promotes awareness of the benefits of distributed energy resources, came out with guidelines for sharing utility data to promote global reduction of resource usage. According to the AEMA the data that would be most valuable to third-party analysts and researches includes:

  • Customer’s personal information; Name, Address, Phone Number, etc. Often this information is held back when sharing data unless it can be shown to be essential to the study.
  • Billing Data including account numbers, the rate charged, meter numbers, and payment history.
  • Usage Data, which tells the volume of water used both in total volume, as well as interval usage.
  • System Data would include any other significant information that affects the data. Some examples would be peak hours of usage, the meter’s total capacity for input, and possible downtime on the system’s hardware or software. [3]

Data Sharing—Why Not

Even if the customer is aware of what data will be shared and gives written approval, there are still a number of reasons why companies might still hesitate to share data.

One obvious objection would be when the data is detrimental to whoever gathered it. For example if a cigarette company has gathered long term data concerning the connection between smoking and lung disease, they would be better off concealing that data.

In the same vein, if data received from smart water meters shows clearly that there was a leak in the system that was not fixed in a timely fashion, then the utility might not be in a hurry for a third party to see the water usage data.

Another obstacle to data sharing is the fear of litigation. In the United States there have been numerous data sharing lawsuits, with perhaps the most famous being the August 2018 double class action lawsuit brought against Facebook in 2018. They two key charges are: From 2007 through April 2018, Facebook had a secret backdoor to their social media app that allowed companies like Apple, Amazon and Samsung to access their users’ private data; and Facebook allegedly failed to prevent a data mining and analytics firm from gathering data on 87 million of its users—data which was then used in Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign. As a result of Congress grilling Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to see if homeland security had been compromised or if the President had broken any laws, Facebook’s market value dropped in a single day by a phenomenal $116 billion dollars—the biggest loss of a public company ever. In any case, the double lawsuit is still in its early stages and will probably take years to litigate. [4]

Additionally, there are sectors that do not support environmental issues and will do whatever they can to slow down studies based on shared data. This opposition to environmental research is usually by big business and by government that supports big business. In fact the slogan for Earthjustice, an environmentalist group that is trying to protect the rights of Mother Nature, is “Because the Earth needs a good lawyer.“

Lastly, when sharing data among private companies, public offices and academia there might be fears of giving competitors an advantage. It can also be an administrative nightmare as the parties try to sort out issues such as who will own inventions or new data that may result from sharing the data for research or analytics. [5]

Final Note

With data sharing still in its early stages, the question of to share or not to share will continue to come up in the future. Although the benefits of data sharing are compelling, it is important that all data will be protected against hackers and the individual’s rights are fully upheld.


[1] Leslie Harris, Understanding Corporate Data Sharing Decisions November 14, 2017
[2] Leuan Jolly, Data Protection in the United States: Overview, October 1, 2018
[3] Michael Murray, Energy Data: Unlocking Innovation With Smart Policy, December 2017
[4] Nicholas Lovino, Facebook Sued for Sharing Private Data With Device Makers, August 30, 2018
[5] Robert Pool, Issues and Challenges Associated with Data Sharing 2016


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