Digital Public Assets

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= "If open data merely serves the interests of capital by opening public data for commercial re-use and further empowers those who are already empowered and disenfranchises others, then it has failed to make society more democratic and open".

— Rob Kitchin

Contextual Quote

Rosie Collington:

"Where market value is generated from the exchange of these products or services, the public sector does not directly capture its surplus within the current ‘open’ data model. It has been argued that these uses nonetheless generate indirect economic returns to the public sector – and thus wider value for society – by stimulating growth in the economy and fostering opportunities for taxation. Evidence to support such claims is, however, limited, not least because existing tax systems themselves rely on the market value of end-use product transactions. On the contrary, we might contend that the establishment of government infrastructure to collect and publish publicly-held data for use by the private sector constitutes taxpayer subsidisation of a commercially valuable resource." (


Rosie Collington:

"Digital public assets can be defined as all registries, databases and information collected, produced and/or held by public sector actors available in digital format. Public sector actors responsible for the production and use of digital public assets at present include government departments, local authorities or other bodies, such as NHS England. Most of this data is textual or numerical, though it also comprises visual and audio recordings, such as images produced in healthcare settings." (


Rosie Collington:

"The current modes of describing and conceptualising the data held by government bodies within policymaking fail to capture the weight of the potential social and economic value stored within it. This matters because unlike the sprawling data infrastructures of big tech companies such as Facebook4, how publicly-held data is used – and which interests profit from its use – has largely failed to capture the public’s and policymakers’ attention. This is despite private companies having in recent years increasingly sought access to datasets developed and held by public bodies, such as the NHS5. Often, these datasets are far more structured and comprehensive than anything the private actor can collect by itself, meaning they can more accurately and easily be utilised.

Conceptualising publicly-held data as a “public asset” pays heed to its potential importance not just for commercial actors, but also collective forms of wealth and social endeavours. Understanding how value is created and harnessed through digital public assets should be the first step in the development of any policy that concerns its ownership, governance or use." (

Why do we need to rethink value in public sector information?

"Dr Jo Bates from the University of Sheffield has published extensive research on the role of commercial and financial interests in driving the “transparent government” initiatives introduced under the 2010-2015 coalition government.9 New OGD policies were initiated within a few weeks of the coalition government’s coming to power. They became a central feature of both the so-called Transparency Agenda, which purported greater public scrutiny of government spending within the new confines of austerity; and later the Open Public Services Agenda, which, after successfully fostering popular agreement that public services were inefficiently delivered, pledged to open them up to private providers.1011, which had been established in the final years of the New Labour government, quickly became one of the largest open data repositories in the world. Today, it hosts over 40,000 de-identified datasets, developed across the public sector on topics including defence, the economy, and crime. The European Commission, which publishes a ranking of EFTA countries based on their “open data maturity”, boasts of the UK’s success in promoting a culture of open data.12 OGD in the UK is used by actors across society, and often by civil society organisations, academic researchers and others whose work does not directly generate market value but may nonetheless be regarded as socially valuable. Its use by commercial and financial actors has skyrocketed, and public sector datasets that are not publicly available have also been accessed by commercial actors through public-private partnerships; the deal between DeepMind and the Royal Free NHS Trust in London, which saw the transfer of - to the Google-owned company, is perhaps the best-known example of this.13

It is this new relationship, in which the costs of producing digital public assets fall largely on the public sector and society, but the surplus value so often comes to be realised by large digital platform companies and the financial services industry, that perhaps most deserves our attention today. " (

Reimagining ownership of digital public assets as Public Data Commons

"The current open government data landscape is like an area of common land that everyone has access to and works to cultivate; except that only a few have the tools and technologies needed to harvest its crops.


So what could collective ownership of digital public assets look like? The following ideas draw from examples of democratised digital infrastructures around the world, including Decidim in Barcelona, the new Plaza Pública in Mexico City and the Open Data Institute’s proposals for data trusts.33 It is worth noting that the hegemony of the old OGD ideas today means that even in polities that have introduced democratic and redistributive structures for data produced by commercial actors (such as telecommunications companies), these same collective structures often do not exist for public sector data. The importance of public sector data, especially when it is generated incidentally, is rarely acknowledged by public bodies, whether at the municipal or national level. The proposals in this paper are described below in a sequence that mirrors the digital public assets value chain described earlier. As a starting point, these proposals reimagine collective ownership of digital public assets as a way of surmounting the issues around privacy, access, and profiteering that make the existing system so untenable.


At present, commercial actors are able to generate huge surplus value from the sale of products and services that have been developed using digital public assets. This skewed distribution does not acknowledge the collective nature of the production of this data. As an alternative model for establishing collective economic ownership of digital public assets, all agreements with non-public actors to develop innovations that harness their value could stipulate that the majority of profit produced through their use is returned to: 1) digital workers’ cooperatives, to allow them to build the capability needed for future, socially-valuable innovations ; and 2) the public actor, to operate, remunerate Community Digital Reps, run the Digital Value Team, and invest in relevant research and education institutions. This does not undermine the potential of commercial actors to make some profit that can be fairly distributed. Rather, it fosters wider capacity for innovation through allowing non-commercial actors to build and grow capacity in a way that generates social value, with the long-term goal that this becomes a primary mode of innovation in the economy and society.

The dominance of digital technology companies in society and in the economy has quickly become a new common sense. Most young people in the UK today don’t remember the world before Facebook; they can’t imagine a time where your boss couldn’t check up on you via Instagram or when the adverts that appeared on the screen in front of you weren’t tailored to your recent search engine habits.

Transforming the existing relationship between digital infrastructures, the public sector and individuals is as much a social and political challenge as an economic one. But many people involved in the creation of value in data – who, we must remember, are at the heart of everything this paper has discussed – are already rethinking value and ownership in the platform age. It is up to not just policymakers, but also community activists and national campaigners, to support that change. " (