In the past few years a slew of regulations have seen international data sharing increasingly restricted. Fears surrounding mishandling and privacy have led to data being increasingly ring fenced within countries or continents, as governments look to respond to growing concerns from their citizens.

However, ring-fenced data comes at a cost: it limits the benefits to governments, businesses and citizens.

“We used to talk about data as the new oil, now we talk about it as the new air. The question is how do we make the air pollution-free? How do we make the air free for all and at the same time accessible for all?” said Jayajyoti Sengupta, senior vice-president and head of Asia-Pacific at Cognizant Technology Solutions, at a panel on data handling within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Dalian, China, today.

“When it comes to regulations and governance, there are a lot of country-level regulations or continental regulations, there are also regulations imposed by specific regulatory authorities, like the Monetary Authority of Singapore.”

The problem with ring-fenced data

While such regulations provide benefits, they also have unintended issues, such as those faced by migrant workers from Cambodia, according to Serey Chea, assistant governor of the National Bank of Cambodia.

“From the banking sector perspective, we are ready to get our data across the border for our migrant workers in Thailand or Malaysia etc, because if they have a good credit history in Cambodia, once they migrate to Malaysia, Thailand, they should be able to get access to their financial services based on their credit history,” she explained.

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By GlobalData

“At the moment we can’t do it because of data rules in some of these countries where they can’t do a reciprocal arrangement with us.”

For some organisations, the problem is even more severe: data collection within countries is not equal, which means that some businesses have to generate data that in other countries would be freely available. This is, according Angeline Tham, founder and CEO of ride-hailing company Angkas, a particular problem in The Philippines.

“We had to look for this data and present it to our government, and I think that is something that is lacking throughout: the lack of data rather than not just sharing information,” she said.

Where data sharing provides benefits

While some regions are lagging when it comes to the collection of data, it’s clear that data generation is big business.

“There is an overflow of data today. Everyone is generating lots of data and everyone is facing the same challenge, which is: what do I do with this data?” said Sengupta.

“Do I have enough data or do I have not enough data or do I have redundant data? So there is an immense amount of effort which is going in collecting the data first and then figuring out what do I do with it.”

However, with restrictions on data sharing in place, the processing of data can be hampered. Organisations in different countries may find themselves repeating efforts due to an inability to share data, or missing insights due to incomplete datasets. And for Annie Koh, vice-president of the Office of Business Development at Singapore Management University, without data sharing, data itself lacks value.

“Data is critical – data to be shared. Even within government agencies, government agencies don’t share data with each other,” she said.

“The value of data is not useful if it’s not shared. Data shared doesn’t mean that it’s data lost: it’s actually co-creation of the purpose of data.”

Looking beyond data ring-fencing

For those on the panel, the solution is for governments to connect more freely when it comes to data sharing.

“For opportunities in ASEAN, we are ten countries and there is actually a lot we can learn from each other in terms of data sharing and knowledge sharing in terms of regulations: what works in one place and what doesn’t work and why,” said Tham.

“I think if governments start talking to each other than would really help with what we’re seeing on the ground, because change is happening so fast, the governments can’t keep up with legislation on the internet,

“So I think that’s a very big opportunity if they can start working together in that one political framework, and I think the biggest challenge that we have for the ASEAN is how do we deal with these cross-border issues or even in-country issues?”

While the question of cross-border data sharing will ultimately depend on the actions of governments, according to Sengupta, advances in technology will over time make cross-border data sharing easier without sacrificing privacy or security.

“Any regulation of course creates frustration, creates certain ring-fencing to the freedom, but this also an opportunity for all of us to learn how to stay within those ring fences, try to make the most of it,” he said.

“But at the same time give enough confidence to these regulatory authorities that ring-fencing can be relaxed and more can be done with it because all these processes are getting stronger.”

Read more: A how-to guide for the new era of data regulation