What we learned from user research on the Responsible Data in Development book

/ October 1, 2015

RDF-book-cover-724x1024Almost a year ago, we brought together a group of people in a farmhouse outside Amsterdam to collaboratively write a book on responsible data in international development. The book, ‘Shooting your harddrive into space and other ways to practice responsible development data’ was published just a week after we met, and has been online ever since.

But what comes next? Our aim with the project was to introduce responsible data practices into international development projects, and while the book is a great start, it’s a long way from being the entire solution.

To find out what we should do next with the book, and how we can best evolve the project, I spoke to 12 key community members about how they had used the book. In this blog post, I’ll share some of the main learnings from these interviews, and some recommendations on potential next steps for the project. If you’re interested in collaborating on any of the ideas below, please get in touch with Danna on danna@theengineroom.org.


According to almost everybody interviewed, the book had helped them advocate for responsible data on various levels: within their own organisation, within specific projects, and/or within the development community more broadly. However, they all admitted that very few people that they knew (aside from them personally) had actually read it, due to its length and online-only structure. In reality, the usefulness of the book does not seem to have hinged on people actually reading it, but rather as a resource for advocates to point to, and a learning experience for those involved in the writing of it.

The current state of responsible data for many of the people we talked to centred around starting the conversation around responsible data as a key concern in their organisations, or on a policy level. For example; via panel discussions, internal lunchtime talks, or sending the book and advocacy material around colleagues. Having the book to point to as a further resource, helped these conversations get started.

As a result, an imminent challenge that many will be facing is moving from talking about responsible data, to actually doing: a number of people mentioned the upcoming challenge of going further than policy issues, into actual implementation. A related concern around this is moving the narrative around data protection and privacy from something that is perceived as hindering innovation, or slowing projects down in a restrictive way, into a framework that can enable innovation and improve development work.

It was interesting to see the various ways in which the responsible data conversation is taking off in the international development sector: on a community level, policy level, organisational level, and project level. The people we spoke to all had different focuses, but there were some key overlapping materials based on the book’s content that could support their work, as outlined below.


Level 1: low budget, relatively short time scale

  • Chapter summaries available as one to two page individual PDFs summarising what one would expect to learn in each chapter, what issues are covered. This would act as a ‘taster’ for people who aren’t comfortable with diving straight into the book itself.
  • Mini-guides: similar to the above summaries but potentially customising individual chapters or specific segments of the book to a specific audience.
  • Slide deck templates for various length presentations: based on the structure of the book, and using the diagrams made for the book. This would be used by RD advocates within development organisations, with customisable slides and spaces for them to add their own org-relevant information. Eg. a 10 minute introduction, 30 min more in depth presentation.
  • Simple, print-friendly version: for those working in low connectivity area, having a version of the book without images, and without spare pages in between, would make it a lot easier for people to print out and read.
  • Image and resource library: making the images that were created from the book available for download as individual (openly licensed) image files, so that people can find and re-use them easily
  • Guest blogging on prominent international development blogs with summaries of different chapters, or highlighting different aspects of the book

Stage 2: bigger budget, more time

  • Print run: printing off a few hundred copies of the book (as a shiny-cover book) and sending it to advocates to keep on the shelves at their organisations.
  • Facilitator guide: helping people who are starting these conversations to field questions on the topic, or with suggested exercises of how to help people understand what responsible data means in their context
  • Targeted blog series: one blog post per chapter, summarising the findings and highlighting what more can be found in the book itself. Use the book as a reference for ‘if you want to know more’ – to get people more aware of the topic.
  • Building up resources: contributing to the Box folder that the US-based Responsible Data community have been building up, or building up a publicly available set of resources on the topic of responsible data in development.

Stage 3: much bigger budget

  • Topical customisation of the book, in sections: expanding sections of the book to be more relevant to specific sectors within global development that have been identified as particularly relevant for responsible data concerns: such as mobile/eHealth, Monitoring&Evaluation, microcredit.
  • Community-specific customisation: infusing the book with some of the communities who are at a higher than normal risk – eg. adolescent girls, the LGBTQ community – to produce different versions of the book for different communities at risk.
  • Executive summaries: of different issues, aimed at upper management, on issues that are specifically relevant to upper management. Eg. liability, PR crises – finding the arguments that will speak more to them than the practitioner angle.
  • Audiovisual additions: creating an animated video to get people’s attention, point them towards the book.

About the contributor

Zara is a researcher, writer and linguist who is interested in the intersection of power, culture and technology. She has worked in over twenty countries in the field of information accessibility and data use among civil society. She was the first employee at OpenOil, looking into open data in the extractive industries, then worked for Open Knowledge, working with School of Data on data literacy for journalists and civil society. She now works with communities and organisations to help understand how new uses of data can responsibly strengthen their work.

See Zara's Articles

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