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The Need for Shared Digital Infrastructure
AI & Human Creativity

The Need for Shared Digital Infrastructure

13 January 22
 | 16 MINS

Put simply, ‘big data’ refers to datasets that are so large, varied, and fast, they are difficult or impossible to process using traditional methods. With access to such complex information, organisations can learn more about their customers and operations, and in turn, develop AI solutions that give them a competitive edge.

Who has the scale and expertise to manage big data systems, and who gets left behind? Established Professor of Data Science, Edward Curry considers a more sustainable data ecosystem, in which the benefits of AI are evenly distributed.

“The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed” is a quote widely attributed to William Gibson, the science fiction author who provoked much debate on the manifestation of our future society. I was one of many to apply this quote to the adoption of technology; the technology is already invented – it’s just not widely adopted. Many world-changing technologies have taken years or decades to become mainstream, while others may never see broad usage. For example, in the early 2010s, datafication driven by digital transformation led to an ecosystem of data that could be exploited to transform our world. Data-driven innovation powered by ‘big data’ held a clear competitive advantage for many organisations. However, European organisations were lagging in the adoption of such innovation. Big data has since come to the fore in EU investment, and the even distribution of data-driven innovation was a key motivation for the European Public-Private Partnership on Big Data Value (Curry, Metzger, Zillner, Pazzaglia, & García Robles, 2021). Today the European Data Economy is supported by an ecosystem that creates the conditions for marketplace competition, allowing collaboration among diverse, interconnected participants that depend on each other for mutual benefit. While this initiative is a step in the right direction, the fact remains that small organisations still struggle to acquire the necessary resources for big data. 

Data Equality

Going back to Gibson’s quote, future innovation is not only a matter of adoption; access and autonomy are other key factors. The future is here, but only a few can access it. Or the future is here, and someone else will define it for you. This perspective raises profound questions on the type of society we aspire to create and its possible inequalities. As we look to the evolution of data-driven innovation, this is a perspective worth considering. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Data Science are revolutionising many industries – transportation and logistics, security, manufacturing, energy, healthcare, and agriculture – by providing intelligence to improve efficiency, quality, and flexibility. Large quantities of high-quality data are critical in creating these competitive AI solutions. However, a significant barrier to the adoption of these solutions, is the high upfront costs associated with data collection, integration, and sharing.  

For decades we have seen the consequences of data silos within Enterprises. It is estimated that 50–80% of the costs of data projects go to data integration and preparation activities. With few exceptions, large-scale data and AI innovation are beyond the reach of many small organisations that cannot deal with the complexity of data management and the high costs associated with data infrastructure. This limits large-scale data-driven projects to those with the necessary expertise and resources. The future is here, but only if you have the scale and expertise to manage the data. This situation needs to change to enable everyone, especially smaller stakeholders, to engage and leverage the value of data-driven AI solutions. The realisation of a shared digital infrastructure will take careful negotiation from all sides to build a consensus – policymakers, researchers, educators, industry, engineers, and those who create the data.

Data Spaces:  A Public Digital Infrastructure

A platform strategy is an approach to entering a market in which distinct groups derive benefits from one another’s participation. Platform approaches have proved successful in many areas of technology, from platforms which support transactions among buyers and sellers in marketplaces, to innovation platforms which provide a foundation for the development of complementary products or services. The idea of large-scale “data” platforms has been touted as a viable way to overcome excessive costs associated with data sharing and providing equal data access.  

As a shared societal infrastructure, data spaces can unlock the value of data to society by creating a “Data Common” where individuals and organisations can share their data anonymously to tackle critical societal challenges, including health and climate change.

Forward-thinking societies must see the provision of digital infrastructure as a shared societal service, like that of water, sanitation, education, and healthcare. It is clear we desperately need new approaches to support the complex data ecosystems that our “smart” society is creating. This vision demands a fundamental shift in how we deliver large-scale data infrastructure to unlock the power of data. We also need to consider the role of government, citizens, and the private sector. Different regions of the world are tackling this in different ways, from the provision of digital infrastructure by the private sector to government-owned infrastructure. Within Europe, we are taking more of a societal approach, as a partnership between public and private organisations. 

The term “dataspace” or “data space” can now be seen as an umbrella term categorising several closely related concepts, including data platform and data marketplace. A data space can provide a clear framework to support sharing within a data ecosystem, while addressing concerns including technical issues, governance, social interactions, and business processes. For example, industrial data spaces can support the trusted and secure sharing and trading of commercial data assets; controls on legal compliance are automated and robust, and data owners are remunerated. Personal data spaces enforce legislation and allow data subjects and owners to control their data and its subsequent use. The data space concept has gained traction recently with several groups exploring its usefulness for managing data from different domains and regions within a global ecosystem.

The Need for Shared Digital Infrastructure

The Data Common: A Data Space for Societal Good

As a shared societal infrastructure, data spaces can unlock the value of data to society by creating a “Data Common” where individuals and organisations can share their data anonymously to tackle critical societal challenges, including health and climate change. As the information accumulates, researchers and policymakers can begin to link, mix, and analyse in order to extract insights. To avoid potential tragedy, it is vital to have participatory governance models where owners are given a voice in how their data is used, what questions the data will be used to answer, and how the data can be analysed. A recent step in this direction is the creation of public data hubs for COVID-19, where citizens and organisations have shared their data to help tackle the pandemic.

The transition to data space technology will not, however, be a fast one. A decade may pass before we understand the methods and the means of mature data spaces. In comparison, the World Wide Web took from the mid-1990s to well beyond 2000 to develop into the everyday tool we use today to search for information and order weekly groceries. Moreover, the development of data spaces requires the engagement and agreement of our society. In the same way agreement preceded a common approach for the electricity grid, we need negotiation and collective agreement from industry large and small, policymakers, educators, researchers, and society, to create the basis of the data economy and common European data spaces.  

Gibson’s quote continues to resonate and provoke debate today. Data spaces are already here – it’s time to evenly distribute them

The European Data Strategy: Common European Data Spaces

In her 2020 State of the Union Address, President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen called for Europe to lead the way on digital in Data and Artificial Intelligence. The European Commission vision within their Data Strategy is to establish common European Data Spaces as a mechanism to support the sharing and exchange of data within a single market for data that will ensure Europe’s global competitiveness and data sovereignty (European Commission, 2020). The aim is to make data available in the economy and society, while keeping companies and individuals who generate the data in control, and respecting European values and regulation (Communication: A European Strategy for Data, 2020). Furthermore, common European data spaces are vital in implementing the European AI Strategy, as the potential for AI can only be fully exploited with access to large volumes of high-quality data. Data for AI is at the centre of the new €2.6 billion European Partnership on AI, Data and Robotics (Zillner et al., 2020) – an effort towards European global leadership through researching, developing, and deploying value-driven, trustworthy AI.

Our Digital Society 

Data spaces offer the foundations to design a new digital society where individuals and organisations can share data in a trusted and controlled environment. A responsible method for discovering solutions to societal problems with the help of data-driven AI. It is an ambitious goal and a systemic change to our society that requires solid scientific, technical, and social foundations. We at NUI Galway’s Insight SFI Research Centre for Data Analytics have been at the leading-edge in researching data space technology for the last decade. We have focused in particular on semantics and linguistics, knowledge graphs, linked data, and the Internet of Things in domains including Enterprise, Health, City, Water, and Energy (Curry, 2020). 

The Need for Shared Digital Infrastructure


Curry, E. (2020). Real-time Linked Dataspaces: A Data Platform for Intelligent Systems Within Internet of Things-Based Smart Environments. In Real-time Linked Dataspaces (pp. 3–14). Cham: Springer International Publishing. (Open Access PDF)

Curry, E., Metzger, A., Zillner, S., Pazzaglia, J.-C., & García Robles, A. (Eds.). (2021). The Elements of Big Data Value. Cham: Springer International Publishing. (Open Access PDF)

European Commission. Communication: A European strategy for data (2020).

Zillner, S., Bisset, D., Milano, M., Curry, E., Hahn, T., Lafrenz, R., … O’Sullivan, B. (2020). Strategic Research, Innovation and Deployment Agenda – AI, Data and Robotics Partnership. Third Release (Third). Brussels: BDVA, euRobotics, ELLIS, EurAI and CLAIRE. (PDF)


Edward Curry

Edward Curry is the Established Professor of Data Science and Director of the Insight SFI Research Centre for Data Analytics and the Data Science Institute at NUI Galway. Edward has made substantial contributions to semantic technologies, incremental data management, event processing middleware, software engineering, as well as distributed systems and information systems. He combines strong theoretical results with high-impact practical applications. The excellence and impact of his research have been acknowledged by numerous awards, including best paper awards and the NUI Galway President’s Award for Societal Impact in 2017. His team’s technology enables intelligent systems for innovative environments in collaboration with his industrial partners.

He is organiser and programme co-chair of major international conferences, including CIKM 2020, ECML 2018, IEEE Big Data Congress, and European Big Data Value Forum. Edward is co-founder and elected Vice President of the Big Data Value Association, an industry-led European big data community, has built consensus on a joint European data research and innovation agenda, and influenced European data innovation policy to deliver on the agenda.


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