Responsible development data
New York, May 22 2014

/ May 22, 2014


Thoughtworks 99 Madison Ave 15th Floor New York NY 10016 USA


This Responsible Data Forum event is an effort to map the ethical, legal, privacy and security challenges surrounding the increased use and sharing of data in development programming. The Forum aimed to explore the ways in which these challenges are experienced in project design and implementation, as well as when project data is shared or published in an effort to strengthen accountability. The event was a collaborative effort to begin developing concrete tools and strategies to address these challenges, which can be further tested and refined with end users at events in Amsterdam and Budapest.

This Forum aimed to explore the responsible data challenges faced by development practitioners in program design and implementation.

Some of the use cases considered included:

  • projects collecting data from marginalized populations, aspiring to respect a do no harm principle, but also to identify opportunities for informational empowerment
  • project design staff seeking to understand and manage the lifespan of project data from collection, through maintenance, utilization, and sharing or destruction.
  • project staff that are considering data sharing or joint data collection with government agencies or corporate actors
  • project staff who want to better understand how ICT4D will impact communities
  • projects exploring the potential of popular ICT-related mechanisms, such as hackathons, incubation labs or innovation hubs
  • projects wishing to use development data for research purposes, and crafting responsible ways to use personally identifiable data for academic purposes
  • projects working with children under the age of 18, struggling to balance the need for data to improve programming approaches, and demand higher levels of protection for children


By gathering a significant number of development practitioners grappling with these issues, this Responsible Data Forum aimed to pose practical and critical questions to the use of data and ICTs in development programming. Through collaborative sessions and group work, the Forum sought to identify common pressing issues for which there might be practical and feasible solutions and prototype specific tools and strategies to respond to these challenges.

Forum outputs included:


International and national development programs rely increasingly on the use of ICTs and data to pursue their objectives. The field of ICT4D has developed rapidly in response to the vast opportunities enabled by increased access to digital and mobile media, broad uptake of social media, and powerful algorithms and tracking software to collect information on previously distant and remote populations. There are significant concerns, however, regarding the impact of broad data collection efforts on local communities.

How do stakeholders in development understand data they provide and data that is generated about them and how do they exercise control over that data? How do data collection projects conceptualize and secure informed consent? Is the very notion of informed consent inappropriate for certain vulnerable populations? What safeguards do development projects implement to protect the privacy of stakeholders? When do development projects share information with governments and third parties? How are the tensions between open data ideologies and practices on the one hand, and privacy and security concerns on the other, recognized and reconciled? How is development data “anonymized” before sharing and release? Does anonymization even work, and how can development practitioners stay abreast of alternative techniques to prevent re-identification? How do development practitioners conceptualize and forecast informational threats to stakeholders? How well mainstreamed is informational security in development projects? Do practitioners understand the political economy of surveillance that development projects and international aid play a role in? What specific cautions need to be taken when working with potentially more vulnerable groups, such as children, youth, women or people in conflict situations or difficult political situations?

These questions have only recently been raised and large international development organizations are beginning to grapple with them at a conceptual and policy level. There is little work being done, however, to address their implications at the level of project design and implementation, where knowledge of local risks and vulnerabilities is likely the greatest. Front line perspectives are an essential component in developing the policies and safeguards that will eventually be implemented by multilateral and international development institutions. They are also key to understanding what kinds of practical tools and strategies will actually be useful for addressing these challenges on the front lines of national development programming.

What is an RDF event?

The Responsible Data Forum event series are small, issue-based convenings to bring together advocates, technologists, to collaboratively develop materials for addressing the unintended consequences of using data in specific sectors. Over the past four years, we have developed a participatory methodology to enable creative development of prototypes and resources at the event itself, making the most of our in-person time. After the event, we share the tools more widely and seek to continue working on them.

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