Data governance for innovation: who controls whom?

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In this era of digital leapfrogging, data has become the lifeblood of modern societies, empowering governments, businesses, and individuals. However, as the volume and complexity of data continue to grow exponentially, a question arises: do we truly hold power over data, or is it the other way around?

During the recent e-Governance Conference, the issue of actual control over the vast data resource took centre stage in a thought-provoking session. Here’s an exploration of the session titled “Data Deluge: Do We Control Data, or Does Data Control Us?” with additional beyond-the-conference insights from Ott Velsberg, the Estonian Government Chief Data Officer and Maksim Ovtšinnikov, Head of Data Exchange Technologies of Cybernetica,

The panel featured Ott Velsberg; Claudia Oliveira, Programme Manager at the European Commission; and Amos Mpungu, Principal ICT Officer at the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance, Uganda. The discussion was moderated by Paul Timmers, a Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom and Heiko Vainsalu, Programme Director of Technology at the e-Governance Academy.

Why data governance matters

The panel quickly established that data governance, the practice of managing, protecting, and ensuring the quality and accuracy of data, plays a crucial role in enabling organisations and governments to make informed decisions, deliver better services, and foster innovation. Particularly in the public sector, data governance is essential to ensure efficient and effective data utilisation in a responsible, transparent manner that serves the citizens’ best interests. 

However, the panel also acknowledged that data governance, though essential for state development and innovation, demands concerted efforts due to its inherent complexity. Nevertheless, achieving effective data governance is possible. “Here in Estonia, we truly believe that we control data here and can better utilise it to provide the most impactful government possible,” Ott Velsberg said. However, Estonia did not get here in one big swoop. Instead, it was in stages. 

The evolution of data governance in Estonia

According to Ott, Estonia’s data governance journey unfolded through three distinct stages. In the early 2000s, the focus was on developing systems and digitising paper-based documents. From the mid-2010s, data existed and was managed primarily for service delivery. However, in the late 2010s, a paradigm shift occurred as the understanding of data’s inherent value grew, leading to managing data as a valuable asset.

Building upon the foundation of effective data governance, Ott highlighted the next phase’s importance: leveraging AI-powered data within the government and the private sector to transform various domains such as education, research and development, and the legal system. 

According to him, the objective is to make the government more efficient and effective by using AI to power data-driven decisions that benefit citizens while maintaining transparency and trustworthiness.“This involves incorporating AI into government services while also ensuring that citizens have a meaningful role in decision-making and shaping how the government operates,” he said.

The next phase: AI as a trusted partner

Estonia already has a headstart on this path, with its Digital Agenda 2030 serving as a guiding framework for its progress. A notable example is Bürokratt, an integral part of its national AI strategy. “Bürokratt is not just an IT project but a concept of how digital services and the state could operate in the age of artificial intelligence,” Ott toldInvest in Estonia

Throughout the panel, the importance of AI and the need to utilise it responsibly remained the core of the conversation. Indeed, conversations around AI haven’t been just about the opportunities it offers but also the possible threats that could accompany it. Claudia Oliveira noted that this is where the EU’s proposed AI Act comes into the picture. According to her, the Act ensures AI is actually “trustworthy AI bound by democratic principles of non-discrimination, transparency, and accountability,” among other things. 

Navigating the stages in data governance

The panel acknowledged that the stages in the digitalisation process differ from country to country, so do the focus areas for data governance. Having helped implement interoperable and secure data exchange solutions in numerous African countries such as Benin and Namibia, Maksim Ovtšinnikov was in an excellent position to share insights on where Africa stands regarding data governance. 

Maksim noted that the biggest challenge currently facing effective data management for most countries is digitising paper-based data and creating electronic registries. He explained that digitisation is a prerequisite for performing electronic data exchange and is essential for effective data management and utilisation. Thus, digitisation is crucial for successful data governance.

He emphasised that starting somewhere with a clear vision and political will is essential. According to him, Benin is an example of a country with the political will and the keenness to implement actionable roadmaps for strategic data governance and digitalisation. Worthy of mention is that Cybernetica and Benin’s continued partnership on the data exchange platform UXP and the Benin National Citizen Portal was announced earlier this month.  

Recommendations for establishing good data governance

Having established that effective data governance is possible if approached strategically, Ott revealed how Estonia did it. He highlighted the country’s use of the FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable) principles for managing and utilising data effectively.

He noted that effective data governance requires several pieces that make a whole – management involvement and support, a clear understanding of the benefits and goals, competent people with the right tools and guidelines, and continuous monitoring and reiteration for improvement. 

Drawing from their experiences, the panel also offered recommendations for emerging economies in the early stages of data governance:

  • Develop a clear data governance vision and strategy that aligns with national priorities and objectives.
  • Invest in the necessary digital infrastructure and capacity building for effective data management and use.
  • Establish a robust legal and regulatory data protection, privacy, and security framework.
  • Prioritise interoperability and collaboration in the development of data systems and policies.
  • Encourage public-private partnerships and multi-stakeholder engagement in data governance initiatives.

Balancing data power and control

Overall, effective data governance is achievable through strategic approaches, as exemplified by Estonia’s journey. By embracing data governance principles, investing in digital infrastructure, and fostering collaboration, governments can leverage data to make informed decisions and deliver better services while safeguarding citizens’ interests. At the same time, responsible AI utilisation and a robust regulatory framework are essential to ensure ethical and transparent practices in data governance. By striking this balance, we can unlock the true potential of data for the benefit of all.


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