Private Sector Collaboration

The private sector and the federal government have a mutual interest in ensuring that government data programs are high quality, easily accessible, and cost effective. Businesses across all sectors depend on government data to optimize operations, improve marketing strategies, and develop new products and services. Government data also helps guide business investment, foster innovation, improve employment opportunities, and spur economic growth.

There are often good reasons for the private sector to voluntarily collaborate with government agencies even if they are not paid for their services through grants or contracts. By offering their services, companies can visibly help the government in a way that supports the public interest. Many strategies also ensure that both government agencies and their private-sector partners receive tangible benefits from the collaboration, including:

Multi-Company Collaborations. If a government agency collaborates with a single company or organization, both parties may risk the appearance of favoritism or “buying” influence. For example, a company could theoretically take a government data set, clean it, and then gift it back to the government. However, this simple arrangement could cause two problems. It could give the appearance that the government was endorsing that company or favoring it over its competitors by using its data. It could also give the appearance that the company was hoping to influence the government agency, perhaps in an upcoming regulatory proceeding, by providing a valuable service for free. Some government agencies are avoiding such concerns by setting up collaborations that include many companies within an industry. Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADA’s) can be used in this way; they can be structured to bring together “participating organizations across the public and private sectors.” One successful CRADA is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) partnership with Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud Platform, IBM, Microsoft, and the Open Cloud Consortium. This partnership, known as the Big Data Project (BDP) was developed to “research and test solutions for bringing NOAA’s vast information to the cloud.” Both government and private-sector actors benefit from this relationship. NOAA uses its partners’ resources to provide data publicly for free, and the companies benefit from having data in a form that makes it easier for them to sell their customers analytic tools to put the data to use.

Private Sector Data Sharing. A number of companies and industries are embracing open principles as part of their larger business strategies, rather than as one-off opportunities. While only a relatively small number of companies are sharing their data so far, private sector data sharing can be beneficial to governments, individual organizations, entire industries, and the general public. A report by the Open Data Institute describes three companies are “embedding open principles into their operations to gain competitive advantage.” For instance, pharmaceutical companies are beginning to share research data both to help accelerate research overall and to speed approval for new drugs. One prominent example includes the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Accelerating Medicines Partnership (AMP).

An even more altruistic approach is “data philanthropy,” in which private sector organizations allow access to their data holdings for the public good. This concept was first proposed at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2011 and popularized through a United Nations data project, Global Pulse. While acknowledging potential complications, including privacy risks, proponents of data philanthropy argue that the rapidly growing quantities of “data exhaust” held by the private sector can be shared and leveraged to “protect communities against the impacts of fast-moving crises and keep global development on track.” Some organizations have begun to explore the possibilities of sharing their data for the public good. For example, the Partnership for Resilience and Preparedness (PREP) was launched in 2016 to make climate data more accessible and usable.


Featured Examples