The ethics of big data as a public good: which public - whose good

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42 Citations (Scopus)


International development and humanitarian
organizations are increasingly calling for digital
data to be treated as a public good because of its
value in supplementing scarce national statistics and
informing interventions, including in emergencies. In
response to this claim, a ‘responsible data’ movement
has evolved to discuss guidelines and frameworks
that will establish ethical principles for data sharing.
However, this movement is not gaining traction with
those who hold the highest-value data, particularly
mobile network operators who are proving reluctant
to make data collected in low- and middle-income
countries accessible through intermediaries. This
paper evaluates how the argument for ‘data as a
public good’ fits with the corporate reality of big
data, exploring existing models for data sharing. I
draw on the idea of corporate data as an ecosystem
involving often conflicting rights, duties and claims,
in comparison to the utilitarian claim that data’s
humanitarian value makes it imperative to share
them. I assess the power dynamics implied by the
idea of data as a public good, and how differing
incentives lead actors to adopt particular ethical
positions with regard to the use of data.
This article is part of the themed issue ‘The ethical
impact of data science’.
Original languageEnglish
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: A
Issue number2083
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • big data
  • ethics
  • Development
  • Mobile


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