Increasing the use of data is a key priority of the European Commission to ensure digital transformation—the adoption of digital technologies by organizations—by 2030. However, organizations face many barriers to using data, including a lack of technical skills and too many data silos where data is isolated and not accessible to others. The Commission has begun to address these concerns through funding programs, such as the Digital Europe Programme that funds digital skills development, and legislative proposals, such as the Data Governance Act and the Data Act that foster data-sharing. However, these initiatives do not fully address these barriers, including some of its own making. Instead, the Commission should address digital literacy issues with targeted programs aimed at boosting in-demand digital skills and revising existing policies that are at odds with the goal of improving data-sharing.
Data can be a valuable asset, and while organizations have more data than ever, according to a recent Forrester Consulting survey of 4,036 respondents across 45 locations, most businesses struggle to utilize their data. In the survey, 71 percent of respondents said their firm did not have a strong data culture or advanced data skills. In addition, 60 percent of respondents who make decisions about data in their organization say that data silos are a barrier to collecting and using data. European policymakers can boost the number of organizations deriving value from data by addressing these barriers.
First, the EU should focus on increasing data literacy among workers. The European Commission has proposed a Digital Europe Programme. While the Commission has not provided details, a portion of this initiative will fund specialized programs for advanced digital skills and traineeships in data, AI, cybersecurity, quantum, and supercomputing. While funding digital training programs is helpful, they might not be tailored to address firms’ specific needs. Indeed, few firms offer data literacy training—only 34 percent offer data literacy training, according to a 2018 survey of decision makers from large, publicly traded businesses. A better option would be for European policymakers to encourage firms to invest in data literacy with fiscal measures, such as tax-free reimbursement for data literacy training programs (so that the government gives back the VAT to the firm), so that more firms will invest in the specific data skills they need. Targeted funding such as this would be more efficient for taxpayers.
Second, the European Commission should foster the ability of firms to share data across and outside their organizations. So far in 2021 alone, the European Commission has offered at least three legislative proposals to achieve this goal. First, the Data Governance Act aims at establishing a governance framework for data-sharing. Second, the Data Act aims at fostering fair data-sharing of personal and non-personal data in business-to-government (B2G) and business-to-business (B2B) contexts. Third, the European Health Data Space aims at fostering data-sharing of health data. They all propose to reduce barriers to data-sharing by ensuring data portability, interoperability, and new legal mechanisms to share data for altruistic purposes. Of course, European policymakers should not forget that sharing data for commercial purposes is also to be welcomed since businesses use data to provide better and more efficient products and services, making consumers better off.
While many of those measures will be helpful to fostering data sharing, they will be insufficient if the EU does not address existing barriers, such as its data protection rules. For example, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) prevents international data-sharing with research-intensive non-EU countries like the United States. Instead of adding new policies to a broken system, or considering each of these proposals on their own, European policymakers would do better to create a consistent legislative approach that addresses legal and technical barriers to data sharing. This means the EU should amend existing laws and regulations when they conflict with the objective of fostering data-sharing. For instance, policymakers should address legal barriers related to data-sharing in the GDPR when considering policies that foster data-sharing.
It is ironic and troubling that, on the one hand, the EU makes it harder for organizations to share data while at the same time spending money to get them to do so. The EU should realign its policies so that they work towards the same goals. By addressing both data literacy and data-sharing, European policymakers can promote European digital transformation.