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African Minds


Open Data Intermediaries and Economic Ownership Rights


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Project Overview

Absent in the research literature is a consideration of how data intermediaries may infringe on the ownership rights of the individual actors from whom they ‘extract’ data. At the individual level, data may hold less value and is readily exchanged. However, at the collective or aggregated level, data become more valuable, placing the intermediary in a position to extract additional value from the data without necessarily providing fair compensation to those who provided the data. This work studies actors and data flows in a data ecosystem exploring the effects of open data intermediaries, particularly on the economic ownership rights of those who provide data.

African Minds is an open access, not-for-profit publisher. African Minds publishes predominantly in the social sciences and its authors are typically African academics or organizations. African Minds received a 2017 Digital Impact Grant for the project “Open Data Intermediaries and Economic Ownership Rights.”


Intermediaries who make data open (by voluntarily waiving their ownership rights, such as by the application of an open license) currently do so for several reasons. One reason is that they do so because they have a not-for-profit, social good mandate; another reason is that they seek to profit from complementary goods and services (e.g. platforms). That intermediaries (including data collectors, curators and investors) have all the ownership rights in open data exchanges has been highlighted in recent research.

But the problems and risks that this asymmetry of rights poses for private citizens (and vulnerable or marginalized groups) seems lost on open data advocates; possibly because the framing of certain issues around open data have become distorted by a misplaced belief in the inherent good of ‘openness’.

The core problem is that data “ownership” is typically framed in open data debates as a privacy or as an ethical issue at the individual level, and not as an economic issue. Individuals don’t explicitly place financial value on their data at the micro level, even though they are implicitly making value exchanges every time they give up their data (usually in exchange for some form of convenience or discount or service), some of which may or may not end up in the public domain at the behest of intermediaries. Open data intermediaries capitalize on this by extracting value from consolidated data sets. Absent in the research literature is a consideration of how open data intermediaries may infringe on the economic ownership rights of those individuals from whom they ‘extract’ data. A lack of enforceable data rights owned by certain communities contributes to inequality and marginalization.

Empirical evidence on the actors and flows of data, the creation of value and the distribution of returns is needed to highlight the fact that while open data intermediaries have many valuable roles to play in data ecosystems, they also introduce the risk of unintended and possibly perverse effects by infringing on the ownership rights of those individuals who provide data.


Gustavo Magalhaes presented the work of African Minds and partners at the Data on Purpose conference at Stanford University in February 2019.

2017 Digital Impact Grantees from Stanford PACS on Vimeo.

Outputs and Progress

  • Produced an overview of literature on data ownership.
  • Organized a workshop on data ownership and use for 30 smallholder farmers in the Eastern Region of Ghana with the endorsement of the Municipality.
  • Produced a workshop report.
  • Conducted interviews with other stakeholders in Ghana.
  • Produced a blog post.
  • Produced a research report and shared the report with the Municipality.


  • A major insight that emerged from the project is the need to explore alternatives to thinking about data as property or as capital. Our initial framing of data ownership gave way to alternative ways of thinking about how value can be extracted from data in ways that are fair to all actors in the data value chain (the data source, provider, collector, intermediary, user). These new approaches to the exchange of data require further interrogation to establish whether they are viable alternatives from the perspective of ensuring fairer and more equitable outcomes for individuals producing data that is of value to others.
  • Data ownership, rights and related issues were found to be much more complex than initially anticipated. While we included a legal expert as an adviser in the project design and knew that farmers were seldom consulted on matters of data rights, the project would have benefited from input from a more diverse group of stakeholders. Inviting experts to comment on the literature review helped to some extent and was very informative, but a face-to-face group meeting comprised of different stakeholders to discuss and debate the pertinent issues would have been more effective and informative.
  • The high level of interest in this research project seems to indicate a need for increased engagement between stakeholders to advance our understanding on data rights and fair exchange in the agri-food sector but also most likely in other sectors.

Next Steps

  • Continued participation in the “Bonn Expert Group” which is being reconceived as a network. The project lead has volunteered to provide support to the network in the areas of collecting use cases, research and think pieces on ethics, governance, applicable laws and costs, as well as the mapping of the data chain to identify the different data and the different uses and who is involved. With regard to the mapping of the data chain, preliminary discussions have been held with the CTA.
  • There is also a potential opportunity to advise the Government of Rwanda’s Department of Agriculture on the use of farmer profile data. While the Department is particularly interested in how it can ‘leverage’ the profiling data for commercial gain and the development of a sustainable platform, the work done as part of the Digital Impact project on data rights will certainly be brought to bear on the advice provided to the Department.
  • Time will be dedicated to the further dissemination of the final report and to exploring opportunities for the publication of the report (either in part or in full).

Learn More

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