The Big Picture: Key Milestones and Questions for Ethical Data Projects

/ September 25, 2014

Last week, Christopher and Kristin participated in the Ethics of Data in Civil Society workshop hosted by Stanford PACS’s Digital Civil Society Lab (you can catch some of the action using the Twitter hashtag #EoD14). This participatory workshop, facilitated by Aspiration (Gunner and Misty), brought together leaders from fields of research, humanitarian, ethics, civil society and the private sector to start discussion around the challenges and ideas related to ethics, data and civil society.

Staying true to the Aspiration facilitation model, key questions were collected and organized from and by the participants, small working groups were formed around these themes, and outputs were documented to share at the EoD Science Fair! Some great ideas came out of this two-day workshop and I wanted to share one in particular that has been gifted to the Responsible Data Forum that we’re excited to pack up and bring with us to the Responsible Resource Sprint in Budapest next week.


Heather Leson, representing the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap team, and Patrick Vinck of Harvard Humanitarian Initiative facilitated a group that worked on mapping out the Data lifecycle, discussing ethical scenarios and key aspects of a data-driven project, and how these connect. (Heather wrote a blog post about the group’s process, outputs and reflections here.) The group came up with a list of 16 milestones and 70 questions/issues to consider at each step (below I have added a few of the questions identified by the group – the full list can be foundhere).

Milestones for an Ethical Data Project

  1. Conceptualization and scoping

  2. Funding

  3. Data collection checklist/assessment

  4. Resourcing

  5. Training

  6. Legal

  7. Pilot

  8. Data gathering

  9. Storage/archiving

  10. Data analysis

  11. Verification

  12. Communications

  13. Audit/quality control

  14. Documentation

  15. Secondary use

  16. Impact analysis / monitoring and evaluation

The group documented their work and we’re sharing it here. They have now passed the baton to the Responsible Data Forum to identify the ethical questions, checklists and recommendations that can be infused at each milestone. Heather notes: Participants suggested that the checklists start with very generic items, but be broken out into topical domain recommendations/checklist items. This is to ensure adoption and remix in diverse fields from human rights to health to science.

Are we ready to take the baton? Heck yea! We think it will be a helpful way to gather input and ideas from a range of practitioners, and a great structure in which to organize resources. We’re eager to see how our tools in progress fit into these milestones. Here’s where we’re at with these tools as we prepare for the Resource Sprint in Budapest.

Tools in Progress

Primer on Responsible Data in Development Programming – This is an introductory document for development practitioners, introducing some of the basic concepts and challenges around responsible data. Developed on the back of the RDF on Development Data and led by Tania Lee and Jennifer Schulte (both will be in Budapest), the guide is in beta form and weighs in at 31 pages.

Safety ranking system for data – This is an idea for a basic stoplight system to categorize data when assessing risks or responsibilities. Understanding that every project will need to make it’s own determinations about what information is sensitive and how it should be handled, it provides a basic classification model with visual cues to support dissemination and awareness-raising within a project and with stakeholders. This idea was developed at the RDF on private sector data, and is currently in the form of visual mockups with with corresponding guidelines.

Questions to Ask Frequently when working with Data and Marginalized Communities – This set of questions was developed at the kickoff RDF, and is described in this blog post. The next step is to think about how these questions could be operationalized and packaged into workflows for different kinds of organizations. Ideally it would be good to pilot them and see what kind of value they add.

Draft Policy for Data Sharing in Emergencies – This policy was developed at the RDF kickoff in Oakland, and is currently set up as a generalized set of processes and criteria. The next step is to determine how this would be to develop a plan for validating, piloting and operationalizing the policy.

Do No Harm Checklist – Work on this checklist began at the RDF kickoff in Oakland. It is currently a set of questions to be asked for data collection projects at the project design stage. It needs to be operationalized and packaged, and needs a plan for piloting and validation.

Privacy Checklist for Opening Government Data – Developed at the Open Knowledge London workshop on privacy, this is currently a set of questions based on regulations and processes in the UK context. These questions need to be operationalized, and work needs to be done to determine what would be make them relevant in other contexts.

Framework for consent policies – Developed at the Stanford Ethics of Data Conference, this model of NGO consent policies currently contains most of the raw material for a tool to help projects develop appropriate consent policies for their data collection policies. It’s currently described in this blog post, and needs to be packaged and operationalized. It also needs a plan for validation and piloting.

We’re looking forward to exploring these milestones and questions derived from the Ethics of Data workshop in Budapest and seeing how this might guide the development and organization of these resources and communities. Thanks for the gift, EoD! It’s just what we wanted.

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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