What happened in Oakland

/ March 31, 2014

On March 6th we kicked off the first event for the Responsible Data Forum together with Aspiration. About fifty thinkers and doers gathered in Oakland, California, bringing perspectives from national advocacy outfits, international support organizations, tech firms and research organizations. There was some live blogging and a couple of write ups describing how it unfolded, the issues we identified and the responses we started working towards. This post gives a quick summary of how we see it all moving ahead.

Ideas and Collaborations

Responsible data challenges are getting a lot of attention these days, and there are plenty of efforts to make sense of them, in terms of privacy, ethics, security. But they rarely manage to think across these domains. Oakland was unique for the depth and breadth of expertise we had in the room, spanning human rights, systems admin, privacy and the nuts and bolts of national campaigning. We started the day mapping the questions that people wanted answered across all these different domains: there were a lot of questions.


Above are the main themes that emerged. You can check out all of the questions (typos and all) at https://www.theengineroom.org/wp-content/uploads/engnroom_rdfoak-questionmap.csv. The questions aren’t exhaustive, but they grounded discussion for the day, and helped us to break into groups with common interests.These discussions were geared towards getting to know who was working on what, and also to whittle talk down to concrete goals for an afternoon of action.

Making Useful Things

Oakland was a first concentrated effort towards building tools and strategies that can help activists and small organizations deal with responsible data challenges. There was a premium on lightweight tools that could easily serve as an entry point for overworked people on the front lines of data-driven advocacy, without presuming to solve all the challenges in every context. We produced over a dozen initial prototypes, including:

Checklists and policy drafts:

  • for collecting information on vulnerable populations
  • for sharing data with humanitarian efforts during emergencies
  • for using social media responsibly in advocacy
  • for organizational approaches to data collection and data ownership


Primers and toolkits:

  • for open data ethics in open government
  • for secure and responsible hosting of websites


Visualizations and information resources:

  • for understanding how data flows through an organization
  • for understanding project data life cycles
  • for understand Terms of Service
  • for understanding the security and privacy aspects of mainstream tech tools


What Next?

All these outputs have real potential to help meet responsible data challenges: a handful have the potential to actually be useful in the near term. We’re following up with partners and collaborations to continue working on them, and looking into smaller convenings in the next few months. We’ll also be working to pilot several of them with partners doing national advocacy. When we get to RDF  Budapest in June, we hope to have a small collection of these field tested and ready to be refined, potentially broken down and built up again. It’s all part of an effort to transition from talk to action and work towards tools and strategies that make a difference.

If you’d like to get involved with any of the building, piloting, refining or generally making these project more useful, we would love to hear from you.

Oh, and we looked like this when we finished.

The Responsible Data Forum is co-organized by Aspiration and the engine room, in collaboration with Amnesty InternationalDataKindOpen Knowledge FoundationPrivacy International and Ushahidi, and with the generous support of the Open Society Foundations.

About the contributor

Tom started out writing and editing for newspapers, consultancies and think tanks on topics including politics and corruption in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, then moved into designing and managing election-related projects in countries including Myanmar, Bangladesh, Rwanda and Bolivia. After getting interested in what data and technology could add in those areas and elsewhere, he made a beeline for The Engine Room. Tom is trying to read all of the Internet, but mostly spends his time picking out useful resources and trends for organisations using technology in their work.

See Tom's Articles

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