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Talking Trade blog

Why policy matters to me: The example of cross border data flows


Published 27 June 2018

In the wake of the Brexit vote, a voter working for the Nissan plant in Sunderland was quoted as saying, “I don’t own stocks, so what is trade to me?”

This comment showed more clearly than ever that we have done a poor job of communicating the importance of trade to everyday lives.  We immediately went to work writing a series of posts about how trade does matter to individuals—including in the first hour of the day. 

While this is not something that we would have wanted, we are getting a live demonstration in many markets of exactly how trade does matter—as the global rules that have governed trade for decades are being radically upended on a near-daily basis.  The consequences of changing trade patterns may make clear once more that trade is more than just owning stocks to ordinary citizens in markets all over the world.

While we may be learning that trade matters, we face a related challenge.  Policy also matters.  Yet getting this message across seems to be even more difficult.

Take the example of cross-border data flows.  This sounds like an arcane topic, of interest to a narrow group of technology geeks alone. 

Instead, it is vitally important to just about everyone and no one seems to quite grasp how or why.   

Here is an example of the challenge.  At the APRU meeting of research universities from the Pacific Rim, Professor Pan-Chyr Yang from NTU talked about cutting edge research on lung cancer therapy in Taiwan that involves genome testing.  The sequencing machines are now so powerful that they can literally be hooked to an iPhone and condensed to a size roughly equal to a thumb drive.  This will allow them to be deployed into clinics everywhere.

Women in Taiwan are uniquely vulnerable to lung cancer, as it is the single largest type of cancer for women and 93% of patients have never been smokers.  Hence there are few obvious markers available to catch the disease in the early stages.  But by using gene sequencing, doctors can better note cancer risks and much more carefully target therapies.  Given that knowledge, lung cancer deaths among women can be dramatically reduced.

What is the connection between lung cancer in Taiwanese women, data flows and public policy?  To get improved outcomes, it is critically important to collect information on patients.  The more information that can be gathered and analyzed, the better. 

But many governments are deeply reluctant to allow patient health data to be moved anywhere. 

Of course, it is possible to strip out specific patient information and transfer data using atomized records instead.  However, imagine that the records show patients with lung cancer—surely the key is to ensure that these individuals are notified and treated? 

Over time, it is likely to make sense to aggregate the data into larger groups by potentially sending the information offshore.  Among the universities in APRU, it makes sense to collaborate in research projects. 

In these instances, patient data will be moved across borders.

Cross-border data flow matters tremendously to universities, because they are all about information and the spread of knowledge.  Yet getting universities to recognize the danger of government restrictions on data flows is difficult. 

Most of the university presidents at this APRU meeting did not seem to understand how or why government officials might restrict the flow of data.  They did not grasp the critical importance of having academics explain to their own governments why information needs to flow for research purposes.

Or maybe they understood the problem, but are instead too busy dealing with other issues that seem more immediate.

This is a similar challenge that we seem to face in working with companies on data flow.  While nearly every firm—both large and small—can explain immediately why they absolutely need information to survive, they do not understand why this message needs to be communicated to government.  Or, alternatively, why they need to share this message.

Many academics and companies find it incomprehensible that government officials would not automatically grasp the importance of information flows.  It’s not exactly that officials do not get it, but that they also have responsibilities to citizens to protect privacy and security.  These concerns currently seem to triumph over desires to move data in some jurisdictions.

In another APRU presentation, presidents noted the increasing integration of the cyber and physical worlds.  Using artificial intelligence to innovate for the future sounds nice, but if not communicated to policymakers, it will not work as anticipated.  Why not?

Governments can shut down data flows.  They can do so and they will do so. 

Government can do so by a variety of regulations that will make it difficult, complicated, expensive or even impossible to move information.  Government will do so in many markets because many officials do not understand the needs of academics or companies.

They do not understand the issues because the stakeholders in the system do not see that policy matters. 

Until and unless these exchanges take place better, we will not get the policies that make sense for everyone.  Policy frameworks are not just the province of someone else—created by governments and driven by ideas drafted from somewhere else.  Policy is supposed to be created for the benefit of stakeholders.  But it requires that stakeholders actually participate in crafting policy.

It can no longer be ignored or the bright future that academics and companies keep planning for themselves can be disrupted right out of existence. 

© The Hinrich Foundation. See our website Terms and conditions for our copyright and reprint policy. All statements of fact and the views, conclusions and recommendations expressed in this publication are the sole responsibility of the author(s).


Dr. Deborah Elms is Head of Trade Policy at the Hinrich Foundation in Singapore.  Prior to joining the Foundation, she was the Executive Director and Founder of the Asian Trade Centre (ATC). She was also President of the Asia Business Trade Association (ABTA) and the Board Director of the Asian Trade Centre Foundation (ATCF).

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