What Do Responsible Data and Acrobats Have in Common?

Amy O’Donnell and Melton Llenos

At the Responsible Data Forum in 2014, a participant described an ‘acrobat’ data controller weighing up opportunities and risks before stepping out on the ‘tightrope’ of data collection. In our case, the data controller is an international non-governmental organisation (INGO) or local partner deciding whether to collect or process data in a humanitarian or social justice situation. 

Responsible Data is a reference point for balancing decisions about the stories data can tell alongside the rights people hold within dynamics of power. After surveying the scene and making a plan, a codified set of principles can help us get balance or decide whether or not to stop – if, for example, we’re unsure whether our acrobat can cross the tightrope safely, or indeed whether they are the best person for the job.

Values-based decisions

Since 2014, many organisations, including Oxfam, have codified their data-related commitments in Responsible Data policies, crucially linking approaches to safety, dignity and rights. In conjunction with laws, policies offer a framework. 

As data collection activities can often involve subjectivity, judgement, and necessary decisions around proportionality, policies based on principles are important to set out the values that frame practical decisions, as well as to start conversations and stimulate thinking on the application and meaningful use of data. 

In this respect, Responsible Data isn’t only about complying to a set of predefined rules; it’s about balancing the opportunities against the risks: only collecting what we need (data minimisation) or working with partners who may be better placed to collect the data that’s needed; being clear about the data we keep (and why) and the data we never collect; understanding who might be highlighted in the data we have, and who is missing from it. 

While a new lens is needed to realise how inequalities show up differently in the use of data in the context of rapid technological advancements, Responsible Data can be an anchor through this change as we apply the same principles, no matter the new sparkly tools. This is ever more important, as the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a sharp increase in technology hype and concerns over privacy in applications like contract tracing systems.

It’s important to recognise that the time and resources needed to write up a policy, and the power to enforce it, are in themselves privilege. Organisations, government agencies and service providers develop and implement policies for people who may not be aware of their existence or know anything about them. Data protection frameworks, regulators and national discourse about the role of data as an expression of power reflect widespread concern and different approaches to solving the systemic  problems at hand. We expect to increasingly have conversations through civic or public frameworks and expression – and see the Responsible Data movement take leadership from outside of Europe and North America. For example, Kenya launched a data protection law in 2019 and appointed the first Data Protection Commissioner in 2020.

Data and power – organisations and individuals

Data is inherently linked to power. Understanding who the acrobat is and what kind of power they hold in their role is crucial. Those who design participatory systems and methodologies can affect who shows up in data, whose voice is heard and, in turn, how decisions get made. Many INGOs are on a reflective journey to acknowledge the power we hold in partnerships and relationships, as we rethink both our role in shifting power and how we can show up in a way aligned to equity, inclusiveness, anti-racism and accountability.

In turn, we consider the power of individuals within organisations (or adjacent service providers) who end up on the front lines of implementation in their relationships within a community. Looking at the use of data itself with a power lens asks us to reflect on whether data subjects really know what their data is used for or what stories are told about them. 

Most of us now agree that consent is very rarely ‘informed’ or freely given – especially in contexts where there is a significant power differential (such as humanitarian response). The reality always involves sharing some data with the understanding that being interviewed means you are more likely to be eligible for assistance. As a local partner, funding pressures require collecting and sharing more data to back up proposals or reporting. 

Sharing is caring: policy to practice

For Responsible Data to be meaningful, we must move from wordsmithed policy documents to winning over the hearts and minds of those making decisions about data collection and use in the course of their work, as we realise that we all have a role to play. We need to emphasise work on culture, which frames a collective understanding of what ‘doing the right thing’ looks like in pragmatic, solutions- orientated ways. This goes hand-in-hand with building a broader culture of accountability that is not only open to feedback, but willing to change as a result. 

The Responsible Data community has been a great example of active resource-sharing, and many of the resources shared have been practical, actionable and supportive of learning. The more such resources and tools that are available within our community – focused on values-driven action and on reducing the burden on implementers, and presented in a way anyone can interpret and use in a reflective way for their own ends – the better. Context, discussion, and co-creation all matter when ‘landing’ principles in practice.

The future of Responsible Data must focus on shifting power in the data landscape, including around who is leading the charge and shaping the narrative about what Responsible Data looks like from policy to practice. We should perceive the acrobat stepping out not just as an INGO waving around their policy, but as individual staff members or partners making daily decisions about data. To support that judgement, we need to work collaboratively to emphasise the practical, principle-based day-to-day decisions, in order to see more clearly the tightrope ahead of us.