Role playing data governance

There’s a lot of work happening around data governance that involves piloting and testing new approaches.

A few years ago the ODI piloted some data trusts. The Data Trust Initiative is running three pilots.

The ODI has also been running a peer learning network as part of its data institutions programme to support a variety of projects, some of which are at an early stage. Pool.io and Open Innovations have been running a catalyst programme for Data Unions.

From what I’ve read so far, these pilots and support programmes have focused on activities like:

  • Developing use cases to show the potential benefits of a new data institution
  • Sharing experiences across projects, and offering mentoring, to help support early stage initiatives
  • Carrying out user research and consultations to inform the design of the data institution, particularly around its governance
  • Prototyping the technical platforms required to manage data

These largely focus on the early stages of a new institution.

I think the technical and, to some extent, legal foundations of data institutions are fairly well understood. There’s definitely new models to explore and new technologies to try out, but it feels like there’s enough frameworks and prior art for these to be the least risky and unknown parts of creating a new data institution.

What feels more unknown to me, and I recognise I’m probably just exposing my own limited experience here, is how day-to-day governance will work once an institution is established.

I’ve been wondering if there’s a way to pilot and test out the later phases of a data institutions lifecycle, which is less focused on the startup stage and more testing how they might work once established. To test and explore how a community might really engage with a new approach to governing data about them?

There are patterns like the lived experience panels mentioned in the Ada Lovelace report on Participatory Stewardship, as well as focus groups and citizen panels.

These feel closer to being able to grapple with the real issues that might face trustees and other participants in a scheme.

But I’ve been wondering whether setting up some role-playing sessions might be another useful approach.

For example, asking people to role-play the part of a trustee or a data subject and then placing them in different situations to see how they would respond. E.g. if approached by a startup wanting to do something new or different with a dataset, or offering money for exclusive access. Or whether, if an institution is facing financial and sustainability issues, how that impact decision making

This might be a useful way to test alternative approaches to decision making, and testing different governance processes, if only in a fictional situation.

Would people really feel represented if, in practice, they can see that they might have limited agency over decision making? In what scenarios might governance processes be hijacked and how visible might that be to participants?

The are the types of questions that can obviously be explored in workshops and panels, but I’m wondering whether role playing through a specific scenario, and perhaps some variations of it, might also be a useful way to drive reflection and ultimately identify potential issues with different approaches.

This could work as a workshop type session. But could also been done as an extended pilot with people playing specific roles over a longer period and the researchers testing out a longer scripted scenario.

Participants would be briefed on their role, the current context of the initiative and then be taken through a series of scenarios and meetings to breathe some life into otherwise theoretical discussions.

Is this something that people are already exploring? I’d be interested in pointers, if so.

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