Data – or facts, statistics, and information – is everywhere in the work of the funder community, from grant proposals and reports to evaluations and communications. This data has huge potential to positively impact the work of donors and grantees, as well as the broader human rights community. However, for every potential benefit there are potential risks and harms that must be considered. Responsible data involves examining the full range of ethical questions raised by handling such information – including, but not limited to, digital security challenges.
In January 2016, the engine room and the International Human Rights Funders Group (IHRFG) held a Responsible Data Forum for Human Rights Funders (RDF). This event also served as IHRFG’s institute, a one-day workshop for funders that runs prior to their conferences. Thirty participants from 26 different grantmaking institutions attended.
The day began with a presentation by Danna Ingleton on responsible data issues generally, as well as how those issues relate to funders’ work. The presentation, based on the data-life cycle framework, discussed the different ways that technology and data are being used in social change work, and how to incorporate responsible data principles into it:
- This may happen in the design phase of a project by incorporating user-led design. For example, Panic Button, a security app for human rights defenders, used activists’ firsthand experiences to develop a tool geared to their specific needs.
- In risky contexts, it’s important to consider how to securely collect and transfer data. One example of this is MediCapt, a tool developed by Physicians for Human Rights to securely collect medical information about sexual assaults and rape in conflicts.
- Processing, communicating and representing the data that funders and activists collect also brings in responsible data concerns, whether through microtasking sites, data visualizations and general campaigning approaches.
A number of responsible data challenges can (and do!) come up in this tech-exuberant world, such as informed consent, data-sharing practices, digital security, information management, and others. Through the rich discussion that followed, the participants distilled key responsible data issues related to their work, which they then spent the afternoon exploring.
To do this, they broke into five groups and came up with the following questions and outcomes:
- Power differentials: What are the internal (within foundations) and external (funder-grantee) power dynamics that exist in instilling and maintaining responsible data collection and storage? Funders should regularly question whether they actually need all the data they request from grantees. They should also always be transparent with their grantees about why they are asking for certain data, and what they will do with it.
Does the often imbalanced relationship between grantmaker and grantee lead to grantees providing more information than what they are comfortable sharing? Who “owns” the data once it has been shared? Responsible data requires trust and collaboration.
- Risk analysis: What are the underlying principles for supporting grantees to examine the risks of sharing sensitive information with their funders and more broadly? Will a prospective grantee view a question marked “optional” on a grant application as genuinely optional, or will they feel compelled to answer it because they think it will improve their chances of receiving the grant? Funders should consider which elements of the information they ask for from grantees are actually necessary for their work, and which might be risky.
- Internal organizational policies: What steps can funders take to develop policies that are in line with responsible data practices? How can institutions create cultures of responsible data practices among their staff and leadership? Although the donor community has numerous responsible data champions, broader and deeper institutional buy-in and commitment to responsible practices is essential. More data isn’t necessarily better.
- Grantee education: How can grantmakers initiate a conversation around responsible data management with their grantees? Grantee education starts with grantmaker education. It is crucial for foundations to have conversations among their staff about their own data practices.
- As they evaluate their own policies toward data, they should also listen to grantees about what they identify as the key data-related gaps and challenges they face, and provide support to address them.
- Digital security: What are the best (or better) practices around secure communications with grantees working in high-risk areas? Implementing the right security tools must involve all of the above. Digital security is an iterative process, responding to changing circumstances, and must constantly be reevaluated. This ties directly into a January 2015 conversation organized by IHRFG and Tactical Technology Collective: “Beyond Passwords: Enhancing Digital Security for Human Rights Funders and Grantees.”
These discussions were largely in sync with the findings of a research paper recently published by the engine room’s Responsible Data Program on responsible data challenges faced by the donor community. Although it is clear that research projects and events such as this are very helpful in bringing challenges to light, we need to be able to push beyond them to create solutions designed with and for the donor community.
The RDF and the IHRFG look forward to continuing the conversation with grantmakers and IHRFG members.