Digital Civil Society Lab

A Framework for Data trusts


Data trusts are gaining interest as remedies for both corporate and civil society organizations as a way of providing stewardship over the massive volume of data these organizations are collecting. But there is no one definition of what a data trust is. Under US law, trusts of all kinds are creations of state and common law. Further, undergirding many definitions of data trusts is the idea of mutual benefit. Yet, when the data of individual citizens, and particularly those in marginalized communities is collected and used, is the claim of mutual benefit a reality? This project proposes to answer questions about the creation of trusts and ideas of mutual benefit for data trusts as used by civil society organizations.

The collection of, and access to, massive amounts of personal data is one of the paramount issues of this era in technology. This data collection and use has disparate impacts on different communities. In a recent example, Sidewalk Labs Quayside project in Toronto offers pervasive data collection in the Waterfront neighborhood. This proposed “smart city” has been framed by many as a surveillance state, the data collected from it bound to negatively impact those from already marginalized. Sidewalk Labs’ proposed solution is a data trust that would manage access to the data collected in the Quayside project.

Of course, Sidewalk Labs is not the first organization to offer the creation of data trusts. Data trusts have been used by hospitals for governing access to patient health data and are also being proposed as way to offer access to training data for artificial intelligence systems, and solutions for open access in scholarly communications. There is, however, no definitive definition of what a data trust is.

In the United States, trusts are creations of state government and governed by state law. Different kinds of trusts have different requirements under the law. Further, undergirding the creation of many kinds of trust are the ideas of mutual benefit or benefit for whom the “property” was placed in trust.


This project seeks to investigate data trusts within the context of civil society organizations. Like corporations, hospitals, and other groups, civil society organizations collect significant amounts of personal data that must be managed. Further, CSOs are conceptualized as working in the public good. One of the major questions related to the CSO public interest mission is whether the collection of personal information can be harnessed for public good. More specifically, can CSO data trusts benefit the public?


This proposed project seeks to answer this and other questions by doing the following:

  • Investigating US law related to the creation and maintenance of trusts, as well as investigating whether there has been litigation over trusts related to data.
  • Examining established data trust examples to explore who actually benefits from the trust.
  • Using the above investigations to create, if possible, a framework for data trusts to be used by CSOs. In the alternative, to offer suggestions for CSOs on their data collection and management schemes.