Hands Off, That's MINE!

Employees hold their data dear, but in many cases the only way to gain new insights is through sharing.

Crying Kids

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Sharing. It’s a fundamental tenet of society, one of our earliest childhood lessons.  But it's also one of the hardest, with constantly shifting expectations. At birth, no sharing’s expected. In fact, not only do babies not share, but we often reinforce these expectations with older children with comments like “Hands off, that’s the baby’s!” An infant’s bottle, pacifier, blanket—it’s all sacred. Fast forward to toddlerhood, and expectations do an about-face. We ask toddlers—even expect them—to suddenly be OK with sharing everything from their favorite toy to a prized book or their best friend.

Last week I attended a Meritalk Big Data Exchange where Joah Iannotta, Assistant Director of Forensic Audits and Investigative Services at GAO, spoke about how agencies can prepare for the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act). Her talk focused on cultural resistance to sharing within government, and as she spoke I couldn’t help but think how universal that challenge is.

The need for sharing, and the internal struggle it creates, follows us throughout life. To a toddler, this sudden introduction of sharing can be upsetting.  My 19-month-old daughter is in the "mine" phase right now, so she’ll claim anything that catches her attention.  "Is MINE!" is heard frequently in our house. When I disagree with her (“no sweetie, you can’t have mommy’s phone”) she transforms into the Tasmanian devil, racing around the house with “her” phone until I catch her and take it away, causing her collapse into a puddle of tears, kicking and screaming. These impassioned displays of emotion are brief but all-consuming, until something else catches her attention and she’s onto her next quest.

As adults we've moved beyond open demonstrations of that raw emotion (hopefully), but occasionally that "mine!" instinct rears its head. In our professional lives, this sense of ownership is incredibly strong when it comes to data. We work hard to collect, maintain and leverage information from “our” datasets, and understandably feel territorial, even vulnerable, when asked to share them. In her talk, Ms. Ianotta offered some good suggestions for how to address these challenges when it comes to open data and data sharing:

Concern:  If I share my data, my agency’s instantly vulnerable to criticism. You're going to tell me I stink.

Solution:  Get people within your agency to see the benefits to the end user. Yes, you’re exposing a part of yourself. But the rewards are great. Understanding how "your" data can help others creates a sense of pride and purpose.

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Concern:  You’re going to criticize and tell me how bad my data is.

Solution:  Set expectations. You know the data isn't perfect, but you can correct as you go.  Ensure you've built in a feedback loop where users can report errors, making everyone a part of the process.

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Concern:  I have no internal support. 

Solution:  Make sure you have the right champions.  Three are ideal—a leader, a champion and a data geek.

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Not everything is meant to be shared. But some things--like a round of golf or a good meal, are better for it. The key is to take a step back and openly assess your data. How might it be used? Could it help others? Nearly everything we collect, from traffic patterns to arrests to water pollution, can be used for the greater good. Whether obvious or not, “your” data just may be that missing piece.

Photo credit: donnierayjones / Foter / CC BY

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