Practitioners reflect on their experience of responsible data


/ February 15, 2018
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This resource was co-authored by Laura Walker McDonald and Kelly Church.

SIMLab’s recent consultation on responsible data in practice demonstrated a deep disconnect between two opposing visions of data in social change work: one, rights-based and respectful of the ownership of the people we serve of their own data; and the other, data-centric and focussed on transactional exchanges of development gains in return for data access and monetization.

The consultation, part of the Good Data Collaborative funded by Stanford’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, was part of the work of the Collaborative, a joint project with the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) and The Engine Room (TER), to look at the resources available to help social change organizations to manage data more responsibly.

Our findings suggest that RD is a complex issue, and rarely handled effectively even in organizations that recognize the need to improve their compliance with RD principles. For many of our respondents, ‘responsible data’ is a new concept, without organizational compliance mechanisms or even broad understanding. Our interviewees see data practices as largely left to individual actors to implement, monitor and enforce; people do not know where to go for help, and even where they do understand the basic principles of RD, they express feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of implementing the required practices in their organization. In many cases, they respond to the uncertainty and discomfort by putting the responsibility for becoming compliant on other colleagues.

Many express concern about not properly understanding the law covering data management, and many do not publicly admit to their uncertainty. Donors and platform providers are equally challenged to provide guidance and investment in a challenging and potentially expensive area with such strong links to legal liability and capacity-building. Critically, the consultation also brought out a brewing ‘culture clash’ between data-centric and rights-based approaches to technology in social change projects which will needs open discussion.

Learn more

Read the report, get involved on the Digital Principles forum where you can discuss Principle 8, Addressing Privacy and Security, and follow the #responsibledata hashtag on Twitter. Later in the year we’ll be sharing new tools developed, redeveloped or finished off on the ResponsibleData.io site as part of the Good Data Collaborative project. And tell me what you think in the comments, below.

SIMLab is closing in early 2018. We’re behind on staff salaries, and some bills. If you liked what we did, or ever used our resources, please donate to help us close as gracefully as possible. Hire our team! And keep working with us until we close – we’re still consulting! Get in touch and find out how we can help make technology part of what you do.

Where does it live: You can read more about our findings on the need for infrastructure investment, improved tools and guidance, mapping of the legal issues involved, and resources that work for beginners, in the report, available in machine readable and PDF format here.
Where this comes from: Created by SIMLab's Laura Walker McDonald and Kelly Church.
Status: The report is complete, but you are encouraged to participate in surrounding conversations by joining the Digital Principles Forum.
Laura Walker McDonald

About the contributor

Laura is a technologist, lawyer and strategist with more than 12 years of global experience in the aid and development space. Laura’s career has focused on helping social change organisations all over the world use technology in principled and impactful ways to support their mission. She brings together practices and people humanitarian aid and development, applied research, software product management, and human-centered design. Before joining DIAL in 2019, Laura was Director of Innovation at the Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation (GAHI), where she led an organisational strategy process, guided the development of a collective platform on data ethics, and oversaw research on new technologies like blockchain. Prior to GAHI, Laura worked at SIMLab, FrontlineSMS and the British Red Cross. She has also consulted with organisations and startups on responsible data; evidence and product; project and organisational strategy, including for DIAL on the 2018 Baseline Study.

See Laura's Articles

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