What is

Data Collaboration?

(and why does it matter?)

Collaboration is everywhere, except where it is needed the most

In today’s World, collaboration seems to be everywhere.

Google enables us to co-write documents, Asana lets us share tasks, and Jira helps developer teams work simultaneously on code.

In fact, collaboration seems to be happening everywhere except where it would probably make the greatest impact, which is on the data that we use to run our public and private organizations. 

Sure, there’s some fun stuff happening with next-gen spreadsheets, but when we’re talking about the data that is used to build the tools and systems that we use for large-scale service delivery, collaboration is strangely absent.

But why is this the case?

Copied data, eroded controls

Today, organizations use hundreds or even thousands of apps in their operations. You might even say we're addicted to apps. But this is not a negative thing, because what it really means is that we're all trying to solve real-world problems with technology.


However, the challenge with apps is that each maintains its own database (aka "data silo") and so when we want to combine data from different apps in order to collaborate on it to build new apps, systems, dashboards, and automations, we need to make copies.


This is known as data integration, a routine but time-consuming and increasingly costly process that is carried out by virtually all organizations.

But overhead aside, the biggest problem with supporting data collaboration based on copies is that the data governance controls that were so carefully set within individual apps become eroded or even lost in the process.


This means that people starting seeing data they shouldn't, and start downloading data that should never be downloaded.

So what’s the answer? ​ 


Well, as is so often the case, we can turn to the Natural World for inspiration.

How is data managed in nature?

The design of the brain provides us with the key to collaborating on data while protecting ownership and control. 


This miracle of nature enables each of us to manage more data than even the largest company on Earth and it does it without making copies of information.


But how?


The brain organizes information as a NETWORK.


In the brain, information that is stored as neurons and electric patterns, is interconnected via a network of fibres known as axons. 


This design has now been mimicked in the world of digital technology with a new approach to data management known as a Data Fabric.


With a Data Fabric, organizations are able to plug in all the data from their apps, databases, spreadsheets, and artificial intelligence tools within a central platform.


Here, rows and columns of data can be linked across the fabric, much like the network we call the internet is used to link content between individual pages of a website.


This network is the foundation for data collaboration.

Only networks support true data collaboration

The Data Fabric becomes the shared digital space where people, systems, and algorithms can collaborate on a single set of real-time, operational data that spans the entire organization.


Sometimes, the outcome of collaboration is improved data quality, which has great value, however, the most transformative impact comes in the form of new intelligence. 


Think of it like songwriting.  The result of a musical collaboration is a new song. Similarly, the result of collaboration on data are "data models", each of which can be used to supply data and controls for a new app or system.


And because the network allows these models to be created without adding a new database, and without data replication, the new solutions can be built in far less time and effort than traditional approaches.


But Data Collaboration is not a free-for-all.

Networks support meaningful data ownership

When you think about it, restricting copies is how we protect the value of things like business ideas (via intellectual property laws), currency (via anti-counterfeiting laws), and personal identities (via anti-fraud and identity theft laws).


That is why our alliance is so passionate about introducing the network-based architecture, the three principles of data collaboration,  and new Data Governance standards.

Each person (employee, partner, supplier, end user) who contributes data to the network is able to set universal access controls which determine which groups within the network can view, edit, query, or otherwise use their information.

These controls also become embedded in every new app, system, dashboard, or automation that is built with and powered by data from the network. This makes the controls "universal" in nature.

True data ownership like this is only possible when we eliminate copies as the basis for data integration.

Collaboration is about inclusive innovation

Building new digital services through the combination of a network-based design and collaboration is data-centric, not  code-centric, and this means that it is far easier for a much more diverse group of people to contribute to innovation. 


Unlike code, data is both highly-accessible and universal in nature.


In fact, with a bit of training in data collaboration, data modelling, and using highly-established and simple languages like SQL, whole armies of students and mid-career folks can now be included in the the problem-solving and innovation process.

Data ownership is not a done deal

While the control, efficiency, and inclusivity potential of data collaboration is obvious, it would be a mistake to assume that the shift from apps built on data silos to apps built from networks will happen overnight. It will take years, perhaps decades.


Similarly, it would also be naive to assume that data contributors (citizens, nonprofits, small businesses) have the time or inclination to actually control their own data.


(most of us able to eat more fruit, vegetables, and grains to benefit our health - but do we?)  


Imagine if every digital service and application required data owners to set unique access controls - it wouldn't be long before they'd be setting hundreds (or even thousands) of such controls.


Perhaps 3rd party service providers or even algorithms will adopt the role of "data custodian" and set these controls for us. Or maybe banks, healthcare agencies, and public agencies will win back enough trust to take on this role.


Clearly, a lot of work still needs to be done to figure out how true data ownership will work in the real world.


As the futurist William Gibson once observed, "The future is already here, it's just not very evenly distributed." 


At the Data Collaboration Alliance, we're up for the challenge of making data ownership and inclusive innovation the new normal. 


Are you ready to join us?

The Data Collaboration Alliance is a nonprofit that's dedicated to a future where data is fully-controlled by its owners and a more inclusive generation of technologists are empowered to build data-centric solutions without the friction of complex data integration.


We’re advancing new data management technologies, standards, and methodologies that eliminate the replication of data and place secure collaboration between people and systems at the heart of digital service innovation.


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Toronto | Ontario | Canada