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Data Utility

Establish a data utility to govern data sharing

Our core proposition is that access to public data is a service provided to the community to enable engagement, transparency, value creation and ongoing community improvements. That’s why we’re developing a public Data Utility to manage this valuable resource, modelled on public utilities that provide core infrastructure services such as electricity and water. This concept is gaining momentum around the world as more cities recognize the critical nature of data in delivering effective services and collaborating with community agencies and government partners.

The Guelph-Wellington Data Utility will operate as a civic trust, overseeing a professionally managed data broker platform designed to foster an innovation ecosystem and drive transformative change across the entire circular economy. The Data Utility will act as a trusted third party, with the tools, governance framework and expertise capable of supporting a wide range of public-private and business-to-business data collaboration.

Governance framework

As part of this project, we’ll develop a long-term business and governance framework for the Utility that will cover:

  • An appropriate partnership model. This could involve creating a new, incorporated organization or nesting the utility in an existing institution.
  • A business and revenue model that ensures the sustainability of the Data Utility. For the Data Utility to survive beyond the Smart City Challenge funding, it needs a sustainable revenue stream and business model. Collecting revenue from data involves deeply political and ethical decisions, and we’re committed to ensuring that the Data Utility develops positive, transparent and fair revenue opportunities. Guelph-Wellington will co-design the initial revenue structures through engagement with a range of stakeholders, examining the following potential revenue models:
    - Tax supported—The government finances the Data Utility from public revenue sources (e.g., integrated into other municipal tax streams).
    - Rated—The government hosts the Data Utility and charges transaction costs from users, similar to fees for identification, visas and public services such as water (e.g., PayPal’s transaction fee model).
    - Public/private partnership—A private sector group hosts and operates the Data Utility, with public sector support and conditions, similar to public universities, service delivery businesses and utilities.
    - Privately subsidized/owned—A private entity hosts the Data Utility, which it provides to the public as a service, similar to publicly funded health research or Wikipedia.
  • Rules and standards. The Data Utility will establish the norms, standards and templates for how parties share data, value and risk; under what conditions; and to what end. It will also implement and enforce those rules and standards and transparently define and enforce a set of relationship standards and templates.
  • Innovation model. We’ll develop a strategy to encourage the use of the data to enable insights, efficiencies and economic value, possibly by establishing a patent collective.

Current Data Utility development collaborators

The following organizations are currently working together to develop the Guelph-Wellington Data Utility:

  • Alectra—the electricity utility and distributor that serves Guelph-Wellington,
  • City of Guelph,
  • County of Wellington,
  • Upper Grand District School Board,
  • MaRS—a Toronto-based urban innovation hub,
  • Toward Common Ground—a partnership of social and health service organizations in Guelph-Wellington,
  • University of Guelph, and
  • Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health.

Program phasing

While government open data portals are relatively commonplace, the civic data utility model is relatively new. At the outset, we cannot adequately predict the places where data sharing will provide the greatest value and how the governance model will need to be reconfigured to reflect new opportunities or challenges.

As such, we’re moving forward with a phased experimentation approach. We’ll move rapidly in 2020 to establish the infrastructure for a Data Hub and common governance standards, with the City of Guelph serving as the lead coordinator. Once the base infrastructure is established, we’ll enter a phase of experimentation where we explore different data-sharing use cases to support innovation, policy development and longer-term data utility business models. This will involve working with new partners and evolving our governance framework.

In fall 2020, we assembled an Advisory Committee, made up of external experts in innovation, privacy, data security and analytics, to provide guidance on our forward plans. The Data Utility will submit a report on a quarterly basis to the Advisory Committee with an update on its activities and any public inquiries or concerns. Each report will be posted publicly, along with the Advisory Committee’s recommendations. In addition to working with our Advisory Committee, we’ll initiate direct public consultations and establish transparent mechanisms for public inquiry into our data activities.

Questions to be answered through public engagement

Building and maintaining public trust will be at the foundation of our data management and innovation approach. Transparency, openness and consultation with external experts and members of the community will be incorporated into the data and technology stream at every phase.

As we begin to explore and experiment with new use cases, partners and business models, we’ll also convene discussions with the community about the use of personal data, building out from “privacy by design” principles. We’ll approach these engagements from a human rights approach and include conversations about consent, agency, control, accountability, recourse for resolving issues and more. We’ll also work with Ontario’s Chief Digital and Data Officer and the Ontario Digital Service to build on their research and work around creating a new Ontario data policy.

Meanwhile, we’ll develop a transparent and accountable process for hearing, handling and responding to any disputes from stakeholders or community members who challenge the Data Utility’s decisions to grant or deny access to data or to allow or deny specific uses of data. The mechanisms for the public to submit questions will be clear and easy to find.

Through a fulsome public engagement process, we’ll seek to answer the following questions:

  • Who are potential stakeholders? Who is entitled to benefit from the Data Utility?
  • What responsibilities should a Data Utility start with? How can stakeholders provide advice on those responsibilities and modify them?
  • How does the Utility stay informed about the needs of its stakeholders and continue to balance those needs against each other? Are there possible conflicts of interest between a utility and its stakeholders?
  • How can a community decide on rules for good data governance?
  • What conflicts might stakeholders and the Utility encounter?

Approach to privacy

Big data can help accelerate the creation of a tech-enabled circular food economy and all the benefits that come with it. At the same time, we have to be scrupulously careful to manage that data in a way that protects the privacy of individuals and complies with all relevant provincial and federal legislation.

We’ll proceed slowly and deliberately, designing privacy into our data management plans from day one and developing a set of policies, standards and procedures that ensure security and reliability. As part of our Advisory Committee, we’ll establish a Privacy and Ethics subcommittee, made up of experts in privacy, security and ethics, that we’ll consult before proceeding with any activities that could create privacy, ethical or security risks.


Year one: Complete the data and privacy framework; establish the infrastructure

  • Establish a transitional Data Utility governance structure
  • Establish the initial data-sharing infrastructure and online data portal focused on communications and supporting projects under the Grow Back Better recovery plan
  • Produce a Data Utility Governance Framework and Operating Model V.1
  • Assemble an Advisory Committee of external experts
  • Hold public learning labs and stakeholder engagement sessions
  • Develop strategies for data-driven innovation
  • Create a “sandbox” environment to develop and test the Data Collaboration Platform
  • Produce a dedicated innovation strategy including intellectual property management

Year two: Launch the Data Utility as a functional community service

Year two will see the evolution of the stakeholder engagement work as it begins to develop into a more formal data governance structure.

  • Explore launching the Data Utility as a third-party, self-sustaining entity
  • Produce Data Utility Governance Framework and Operating Model V.2, which includes emerging best practices, obstacles and results from research and experiments in year one

Years three to four: Establish and share templates and best practices guides for other communities and achieve network maturity

As the model matures, community engagement and participatory governance will continue. We’ll also define operational metrics for the evolving development of systems. Once the Data Utility and governance models are fully operational and stable, we’ll look at the best ways to share our infrastructure and insights with other cities globally—from the software code to the human resources support model to the successes and challenges of our public engagement process. A range of tools, code, documents and processes will also be made as openly available as possible online, allowing others to borrow from and revise them. It will also include contact information for Guelph-Wellington staff who can help interpret or apply the resources.

This library will be a place f or sharing and interacting with other municipalities—across Canada and globally—and perhaps convening a community of practice for others that have adopted the data utility model locally. This can also be done through provincial and national networks of cities such as the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and the Municipal Innovation Exchange, as well as international organizations such as ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability). These tools will help municipalities as they work together on issues such as climate change, resiliency planning and food.

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