If data is the new oil, many companies have given up their mineral rights

People go to great lengths to keep mineral rights that were handed down as part of an inheritance or land sale and it is easy to understand why. Even though there can be staggering costs associated it is seen as a wise choice due to the potential revenue they represent. I am convinced that data will one day be protected and valued in the same way we currently value mineral rights. What follows are some thoughts on how to prepare for that eventuality.

If you pay to have data collected, you own that data right? If you define ownership as the ability to access, control, and use an asset then many companies would have to admit that they have no practical ownership of their own data. Instead the companies or contractors who manage that data are the de facto owners of it.

So how did we get here? In the era of big data, many companies are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data being collected on their behalf. They know, or have been told, that there is great value in their data and panic because they don't know how to extract it. Then a consultant comes along who promises to use their special brand of alchemy to find and package that value for the client. The owner/client agrees gratefully and somehow, by the end of that process, the consultant has sole control over the data. Notice that subtle shift from owner to client. They go from an owner to a client who is paying for someone else to access and interpret data for them. If the owner wants an answer that lives in the data, they have to go back to the consultant and ask them to retrieve it. In some cases, even if the owner just wants a copy of their raw data they are charged a fee to export it in a usable format. 

Don't get me wrong, I am not saying those consultants should not exist. Many of them do extremely valuable work pulling meaning from complex and chaotic raw data sets. At Statvis, we pride ourselves on building tools to do just that for our clients. The key distinction between a good deal for the owner and a bad one depends on access. If the data owner asks for their data back, the answer should always be: "What format would you like it in?" Recently I went through this process with an environmental client and a paraphrase of the answer that came back is "We are not sure we can do that and if we can it will likely be expensive." Let's step through this logically. The owner paid to have environmental samples collected from a property they own. They then paid to have the samples analysed in a lab. Then they paid still more to have the lab data summarized in a report. So far they have hit three paywalls before they have seen their data for the first time. Now, when they ask for a digital copy of the raw data they are told that it will cost them an unknown and probably large sum of money? Some would call this a good business model for the consultant but I feel a more honest description is extortion.

I get it. To hold a client's data is to hold the magical keys to recurring revenue. It is a powerful incentive to keep the client from moving their work. The only problem is that it is not an ethical incentive and the client knows it. As soon as they get a chance to break their data out of the jail built around it they will hit the ground running and never look back. 

So how do we do it better? Here are my thoughts on that:

If you are a data owner (industrial company, regulator, landowner etc.): Do not give up control of your data in the first place. If there is a database, own it. Give your contractors temporary access to your data, not the other way around. 

If you are a data manager (consultant or contractor): Build recurring revenue by providing more value, not by controlling more data than anyone else. Long term relationships are built on providing more value in the form of site-specific knowledge and actionable recommendations not by making it too painful to transfer data to another consultant. The client's data should always be available in a digital format ready to be consumed by any other tool or system they choose to use. 

I believe data rights will one day be guarded as closely as mineral rights are today. Until then, we will keep building tools that break data out of jail and return it to its rightful owners, the people who paid for it in the first place. 

Paul Fuellbrandt