Looking back at 2016 in the Responsible Data community

/ December 21, 2016

As the year draws to an end, we’d like to take a moment to celebrate the Responsible Data community, and to take a closer look at all the amazing things that its members have accomplished together this year.

Thanks to the Responsible Data community, 2016 has been the year of stimulating dialogue, practical challenges in all sorts of ways, and policy design. The Responsible Data community continues to be a hub of intelligent people who are concerned with the ethical risks and challenges that come from using more data, in new ways.

The responsible data mailing list, which hit over 500 members this year, continues to be a place where members from diverse backgrounds can share challenges and discuss topics. Some highlights this year include discussing core problems around the proprietary system what3words; learning about the use of blockchain in the humanitarian sector; and debating the data disclosure decisions of the Panama Papers team, to name just a few.

We’ve also been glad to see the mailing list being used to search for consultants to help on Responsible Data challenges that organisations are facing, and for frank and open discussion.

In many cases, discussions on the mailing list led to the publication of blog posts on ResponsibleData.io. So without further ado, and with immense gratitude, let’s review 2016 in the Responsible Data community.

RDFviz, reflection stories and human rights

We kicked off 2016 with not one, but two Responsible Data Forums in January – one about data visualisation, and one about human rights funders. You can follow the ongoing conversation around Responsible Data Visualisation on #RDFViz. Lots of great blog posts were written in the lead-up to the event, including Mushon Zer-Aviv on empathy evoked by data visualisation and a piece by Catherine D’Ignazio exploring the principles of feminist data visualisation. And although we’re not actively updating our curated list of articles on the topic, the topics we began to discuss have evolved over the year. Lisa Rost, who attended the RDFViz event, will be discussing empathy in data visualisation at this year’s Chaos Communication Congress at the end of December – catch her on the live stream if you can!

In February, Data & Society’s Mark Latonero published a great article on the perils of collecting refugees’ data, and we loved this overview of conclusions after the International Data Responsibility Conference.

A third Responsible Data Forum took place in San Francisco in March, the day before RightsCon, where participants discussed the questions and challenges of documenting human rights violations. A number of organisations partnered up for the Forum, including HURIDOCS, Benetech and The Engine Room. In the same month, we kicked off a brand new newsletter on Responsible Data, named Mission: Responsible. We weren’t quite as thorough at keeping it up as we had imagined, but we look forward to coming back to it in 2017 (and in the meantime, feel free to read through the archives).

Also in March, we launched our first set of nine Responsible Data reflection stories. These are a set of nine case studies highlighting concrete responsible data challenges in advocacy, on subjects ranging from social media verification and opening the wrong data, to recognising uncertainty in statistics. We look forward to fostering further collaboration projects like this one, and to continuing to share our knowledge and stories.



Being, a Complete, Illustrated Guide to Responsible Data Usage, Manners, and General Deportment


Responsible development data, tip sheets, and policies

In April, we were proud to release the new adaptation of the responsible development data book that is now fondly referred to as, “The Hand-Book of the Modern Development Specialist: Being a Complete Illustrated Guide to Responsible Data Usage, Manners & General Deportment.” We could not have carried out this project without the support and feedback of our community members, many of whom gave substantive input into what kinds of resources would be most helpful to accompany the handbook – like slide decks, and chapter summaries.

Towards the end of the month, we were very sad to see Danna Ingleton leave her position as Responsible Data Program Manager, which she took on during her sabbatical leave at Amnesty International – but she left us with some incredibly insightful reflections after her year with us.

In May, MercyCorps launched the Data Starter Kit for Humanitarian Field Staff. We worked with MercyCorps and a range of other partners to produce this set of data tip sheets to help field practitioners responsibly manage and protect the data they hold. The tip sheets are direct and practical guides to assess and minimize the risks involved in data management and data protection, available for download and to view online.

And as of May, The Engine Room supported a Responsible Data School of Data fellow, as part of their themed fellowships. Vadym Hudyma has been working on addressing responsible data challenges in the Ukrainian government’s practices of releasing data about citizens, and is supporting two campaigning projects in Ukraine on responsible data collection and use of data visualisation.

Alongside these exciting events, we were thrilled to see an increasing number of organisations committing to the development and implementation of responsible data policies, such as USAID, the largest bilateral donor by size of budget in the world, who recently commissioned consultants to help create Responsible Data Guidelines for their entire global funding.

Agriculture, data ethics, and responsible data tactics

The summer months were, albeit more calmly, full of fruitful discussion. The Engine Room’s Alix Dunn shared three tactics for managing responsible data complexity in program design. In August, our collaborative efforts with Amnesty International and Benetech led to the publication of DatNav, a guide designed to help you navigate and integrate digital data into your human rights research.

In September, Global Open Data in Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) commissioned The Engine Room to do a sector-specific analysis of responsible data challenges in agriculture. We presented our Responsible Data findings in a webinar to InterAction’s Food and Agriculture network in November 2016.The report was cited by Thomas Gass, an Assistant Secretary General at the UN, who said the following:

“I went through this Responsible Data in Agriculture brochure that’s online and it strikes me how much it applies, in concrete terms, to the data revolution that is part and parcel of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development. The authors of this document have applied the individual lessons to the concrete case of agriculture, food and nutrition, and that is very very encouraging for those of us who have to sit in here and wonder sometimes whether there is any impact to what we are doing.”

We were also pleased to see the Responsible Data community receive multiple mentions in a new report on ‘Data Ethics’, supported by the MacArthur Foundation and Ford Foundation. In the report, David Robinson and Miranda Bogen at Upturn map ways in which data at scale may pose risks to beneficiaries and funders, citing the Responsible Data Forum as a welcome facilitation effort for data-related challenges.

In October, the MERLTech conference was held in Washington DC. This year, it hosted a Responsible Data track, with more than 15 session submissions. A follow-up will be held in London in early 2017.

As part of the Open Data Institute’s Friday Lunchtime Lecture series, Alix Dunn talked about the tactics for responsible data processes, and gave some useful tips on how to apply them in open data work. Following a year full of political data leaks and breaches, Alix Dunn and Ruth Miller scrutinised the responsible data issues that come with the use and publication of data through leaks and breaches, both unintentional, and intentional. Following up from MERLtech earlier the previous month, Linda Raftree wrote about the challenges of going from policy to implementation when it comes to Responsible Data.

While November was a difficult month for our friends in the United States, we were proud to see responsible data mentioned in the neveragain.tech pledge – a statement from tech employees in the US, pledging to use their skills responsibly. Over on the Responsible Data blog, Zara Rahman wrote about the role of data collection in genocides, and Evanna Hu wrote an interesting article on responsible data concerns with Open Source Intelligence.

The latter was followed up by in December by Privacy International’s Millie Graham Wood, who made an excellent analysis of the distinction between open source intelligence and social media intelligence.

And finally, we ended the year with a review of 2016 as a year of data-driven confusion on Model View Culture, highlighting the need for a responsible data approach.

Looking back at the achievements of this community, we realise that we could not be prouder to share this space with you, and we look forward to working with many of you in 2017, to continue to address growing responsible data challenges in all of our work.

Happy holidays!

P.S. If you’re not already signed up – come join responsible data discussions over on the mailing list!


About the contributor

Paola is a Belgian-Peruvian historian, writer and creative coder. Her broad range of interests motivated her to pursue studies in the history of solidarity, logic, and digital humanities. Prior to joining The Engine Room, she worked as journalist, as a research assistant at the University College of London, and as a UX designer at Amnesty International. She’s always up for a chat about archives, creative coding, and NBA trivia.

See Paola's Articles

Leave a Reply

Related /

/ July 26, 2022

Takeaways from our Community Call on Responsible Data for Social Justice Organisations

/ February 15, 2022

Responsible Data Community Retrospective series: 12 articles about the state of the Responsible Data work

/ March 2, 2021

Curating connections in the Responsible Data community