There is no lack of data in the world. We are producing exabytes of it every day. Data is pouring out of our computers, TVs, mobile phones, cars, traffic lights, refrigerators, and even that little vacuum robot scooting around our living rooms.

This data can not only illuminate possible solutions to many of our society’s problems, they can also amplify the things that we do well.

Most of this data is held by tech companies who are not enthused about sharing it. For if data is indeed valuable, why would they give it away?

Researchers look at the huge amount of valuable information, locked away inside private data vaults, and lament the loss human society suffers as such a resource remains untapped. They see all this data as a public good and they are trying to find a way to tunnel through and make it accessible.

Two NYU-based researchers cover this issue extensively in a new report, titled The Potential for Social Media Intelligence to Improve People’s Lives.

One suggestion has been to establish data collaboratives, a private-public partnership that facilitates the exchange of data and analytical capabilities to improve societal well-being. For this approach to succeed, however, there has to be a major shift in tech company attitude from data ownership to data stewardship. Data must no longer be thought of as something to be owned but something to be cared for the benefit of society.

The authors’ explain:

First, data cooperatives or pooling involve corporations and other entities joining together to create shared data resources. Corporations can also make data available to qualified applicants who compete to develop new apps or discover innovative uses for the data through prizes and challenges. Data collaboratives can take the form of research partnerships as well, with corporations sharing data with universities, academics, or other researchers to enable the generation of new insights. Shared (often aggregated) corporate data can be used to create intelligence products such as tools, dashboards, reports, apps, and other technical devices to support public or humanitarian objectives. Application programming interfaces (APIs) that offer direct access to corporate data streams, as well as data that can be manually scraped, are enabling researchers and practitioners to access data for research, testing, and data analytics. Finally, corporations can share data with a limited number of trusted intermediaries, such as the UK’s Consumer Data Research Centre and the international development nonprofit NetHope, to enable data analysis and modeling, as well as other value chain activities.

This is a big ask of many companies and data collaboratives have not seen much traction yet.

Another approach is that pioneered by Orange, a multinational telecom company. Orange wanted to help improve public policy-making capabilities but they wanted to retain control over their data. Orange instead built a platform from which outside researchers could query through the company’s databases without actually releasing the data. . Whatever algorithm was developed, it was then subject to ethical review by another set of public regulators.

The concept of data as a public good is still a work in progress.