Data to dollars: Thoughts on valuing data as an institutional asset

A core principle of data governance is that data, regards of who creates or has custody of it, is an asset of the institution. But what’s an asset? Some ground-breaking work in Canada and Europe might point the way to putting an actual dollar value on our data.

For the first time, Statistics Canada last year tried to estimate the value of the country’s stock of data. The total value of data, databases and software, and data science in Canada is between CAD $157 and $218 billion, the agency estimates. (1)

This is a first stab. Like every national statistical organization in the world, Stats Can is playing catchup with the explosion of digital data capture and processing and its importance to the economy. Data is clearly part of a country’s productive capacity, but it doesn’t show up in national accounting statistics such as gross domestic product (GDP).

The same for universities. Buildings are tangible assets recorded on the balance sheet. Data is intangible and, unfortunately, invisible to generally accepted accounting principles. What if the university were able to value data as a capital asset?

The value of software and analysis is more easily measured than the store of data. Subtract those two from the Stats Canada estimate, and the value of data by itself ranges from $105 to $151 billion for the whole country.

Using share of GDP for our sector, I estimate that publicly-funded institutions such as hospitals and universities might be holding $6.6 to $9.5 billion in data assets, assuming all subsectors have been equally productive. (2)

Drill down farther, and my back-of-envelope calculation finds that Dalhousie University’s data might be valued between $24 and $35 million. (3)

There are too many layers of assumptions to feel confident in the accuracy of that range. (For example, it is unclear whether or where research data is counted in the national statistics.) Better than trying to decompose the national figures, we might try valuing our data using Stats Canada’s methods.

Our university’s data is not for sale, so a direct market value cannot be determined. Stats Canada values data at the cost of producing it, plus an estimated return on capital. Data is produced by people engaged in data-related activities: Working with many years of labour-market surveys, the agency identified roles likely involved in the creation of data (data entry clerks, researchers, analysts and so on), estimated a likely percentage range for the amount of their job spent on data creation, and calculated the cost based on salaries plus associated costs.

Value based on cost of creation sets only the lower bound; as new uses for data are found, its market value could change dramatically. More work remains to be done. But as a starting point it might hold promise for institutions seeking to measure their data as a financial asset.

In the system of national accounts, data may come to form a whole new asset class. For businesses, non-profits and other organizations, adding data investments to financial statements would give it added prominence.

Which brings me back to data governance. The value proposition for data governance at a university is hard to define. Counting data as an asset — literally — might be a step in the right direction.

Notes

  1. Statistics Canada has produced two highly readable papers on this topic: “Measuring investment in data, databases and data science: Conceptual framework,” released 24 June 2019, and “The value of data in Canada: Experimental estimates,” released 10 July 2019.
  2. Economic production in the non-profit sector totalled $169.2 billion in 2017, representing 8.5% of Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP). In recent years, publicly-funded institutions such as hospitals and universities have accounted for about 6.3% of GDP, which leads me to conclude that our subsector might be holding $6.6 to $9.5 billion in data assets.
  3. In 2017, education institutions in Canada accounted for $46.5 billion, or 2.3% of GDP, suggesting total data assets of $2.4 to $3.5 billion. Education institutions in Nova Scotia accounted for $1.4 billion, or 0.07%, of GDP – implying data assets of $74 to $106 million. Taking the size of Dalhousie University relative to all the others in the province, our stock of data could be worth between $24 and $35 million. (Thank you to Juuso Vesanto, BI Analyst with Dalhousie Advancement, for pointing me to an Economist report on this topic which gave me the idea to use share of GDP.)

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