This blog builds on the work conducted by the Open Data Institute. Our intention is to develop data trusts beyond a conceptual pilot into an operational data trust; working in collaboration with visionaries within the Oil and gas and construction sectors.


What is a data trust?

Much of the current interest in data trusts in the UK has been fuelled by a review into Artificial Intelligence (AI) in 2017, ‘Growing the artificial intelligence industry in the UK’ . It recommended data trusts as a way to “share data in a fair, safe and equitable way” and said that they were an important element of growing the AI sector.

AI is the focus of a grand challenge in the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy. Data trusts are also seen as a tool that could be used in competition policy.

The ODI defines a data trust as: ‘a legal structure that provides independent stewardship of data’. They suggest that data trusts are independent from the organisations that hold the data, and prospective data users; specifically that data holders and data users may be precluded from making decisions about data access, or may be included in decision making but prevented from dominating it.

However, this is unlikely to work in the project data analytics use case.

In the project data use case, it is essential that the trust retains the confidence of the data providers. If their confidence is lost, the data trust will degrade to a lowest common denominator, where data is constrained in terms of scope, is redacted or manipulated to protect specific sensitivities. The design of the trust must have this consideration at its core.

In order to retain the confidence of the data providers they must be able to make decisions on who can access their data, for what purpose and with what controls. They need to be able to protect their commercial interests, mitigate reputational damage and ensure compliance with appropriate legislation such as GDPR.  Ultimately, the data providers are the trustees of the data trust; they are not independent and would be unlikely to assign unlimited access rights to their data to an independent third party unless it is heavily redacted and anonymised, which in turn reduces its utility.

The day to day management of the trust will be delegated to a third party organisation, a data steward, working on behalf of the collective interests of the trustees. As a steward of the trustees’ data, the steward can decide who has access, under what conditions and to whose benefit, operating within a framework agreed with the trustees. The steward will define a set of conditions where they will be delegated discretion for data sharing. Any use cases that exceed these conditions will be referred to the trustees for a triage decision, with the steward independently assessing the pros and cons, looking through the lens of both the trustees and the beneficiaries.

An independent person or group of people – its ‘trustees’ – take on a duty to make decisions about the data in the best interests of a third group, its ‘beneficiaries’.  The beneficiaries of the data trust include those who are directly provided with access to the data – such as project delivery organisations, researchers and developers – and the wider groups of people and organisations who benefit from what they use it to create.

Importantly, a data trust’s trustees must balance a number of different and potentially conflicting demands, specifically:

  • A fiduciary responsibility to their parent organisation’s shareholders. Protecting shareholder value and reputation, whilst leveraging data to secure improvement in delivery confidence and outcomes.
  • A legal responsibility to protect the interests of the people they have identified within the data in accordance with GDPR. They are unable to delegate this responsibility.
  • To promote the overall development in how projects are delivered, leveraging the benefits that advanced data analytics have to offer.

Ultimately, the trustees will be legally bound to operate within a defined set of constraints, working for the benefit of a particular stakeholder group and organisations, as well as other stakeholders affected by its use. A data trust takes this concept of enabling an independent institution to hold something – and importantly, to make decisions about its use – and applies it to data.

In summary, the trustees (nominated by the data providers) will make decisions on who is allowed to access their data, for what purpose and within a defined set of conditions. The steward will independently manage the trust on behalf of the trustees, ensuring that data is appropriately controlled within an agreed framework. This framework will evolve as experience in the management of the data trust develops.   

Stewarding Data

Projects create a rich seam of data that has the potential to transform how projects are delivered. By pooling, connecting this data and applying advanced data analytics/AI we can analyse the data to develop predictive insights and recommendations, tailored to the phase and specific circumstances of the project. From the forensic analysis of lessons learned through to understanding the probabilistic distribution of risk based upon actual out-turn from previous projects, we can highlight areas of focus, increase rigour and challenge bias. Such an approach has the potential to transform how project professionals value project data, which creates the momentum for an upwards spiral in data quality and ultimately, the quality of insights. By reducing the cost and increasing the certainty of projects we have an opportunity to improve their economic viability.

Unlocking the value of this data for the benefit of delivery organisations, the profession, society and the economy – while also protecting people and organisations from its potential harms – is a critical challenge in driving forward transformational change, whilst improving delivery certainty.

Many of the advanced methods and artificial intelligence inspired solutions rely on access to data. The use of these new technologies can make it easier for organisations to identify risk, optimise schedules, benchmark cost, predict issues before they arise and derive mitigation actions founded upon a successful track record. It can shape productivity improvement and economic value. The stewardship of data – and, in particular, deciding who has access to data, under what conditions and to whose benefit – is therefore critical.

When data is not stewarded well, it can reduce confidence between people and organisations, and between one organisation and another.

We need trustworthy data stewardship, not only to ensure that data is available to those who need it, but also to do so in ways that encourages pooling of data to achieve critical mass, retain trust and address concerns that might otherwise prevent us from realising its full benefits.

Decision point

The industry is approaching a decision point, comprising 2 optional courses of action:

  • Unite around the vision that project delivery data has intrinsic value. When pooled, it is possible to apply AI and advanced data analytics to extract insights that can transform how future projects are delivered.
  • Acknowledge that data is fragmented, variable quality and may be difficult to extract from current and legacy systems. This course of action should also consider whether this will remain the situation for the foreseeable future or whether there is an opportunity to work collaboratively to lift overall data quality.

Organisations will have a number of strategic priorities, all competing for scarce resources. The decision for each organisation will be whether they believe their future resides in data enabled project delivery or whether they continue along the current trajectory. By piloting data trusts within the oil and gas and construction sectors we are providing an opportunity to test whether commitment exists to pivot towards a new approach.

The future

Data trusts will provide the facility to securely pool data and achieve critical mass. Professionals will become increasingly aware of the value of data and how it can provide predictive insights into how projects should be delivered. Trusts will begin to proliferate in 2019/20 and enable the community to begin to exploit the rich seam of data that otherwise remains out of reach.

Projecting Success is delighted to be helping to lead the thinking of such a transformational capability, linked to a wider ecosystem of meetups, hackathons and apprenticeships. We are entering a new era.

Martin Paver is the CEO and Founder of Projecting Success, a consultancy that specialises in leveraging project data to transform project delivery. He has led a $1bn megaproject and a multi $billion portfolio office. He is the founder of the Project Data Analytics community, comprising over 3000 members who share a passion for leveraging the exhaust plume of project data. He regularly blogs and presents at international conferences, helping to ignite the professional imagination and inspire change.