More Lighthouses for Stormy Seas: Navigating the Waters of Data Science

The responsible use of data in our field is not a new topic for us, but recent news reminds us why this work is so important. Over the past few months, the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) has been hard at work to figure out how we can support our colleagues grappling with questions on the use data-generated insights to improve services to the people our organizations serve, beyond our support of the Principles for Digital Development.

In the past few years, experts have raised concerns about issues such as mobile call data records gathered in Liberia’s Ebola crisis. Just over a year ago, the International Committee of the Red Cross highlighted risks of biometric use amongst Afghan refugees. And in the past several months, we have seen news about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica that highlight the potential risks and legitimate concerns about the data industry at large.

As a result, the attention of people everywhere, including in the development and humanitarian sectors, has become fine-tuned to these types of issues. For many years now, implementers have grappled with responsible using data for the world’s most vulnerable populations and experts have expressed concerns on how data is accessed, processed and used in both ongoing development programs as well as in the aftermath of health and other emergencies. Quite simply, when does the harm outweigh the benefit from using these new information sources? And exactly who controls access to this data? (Check out the reading list at the end of this article to learn more about this subject.) 

The dialogue around these issues are ongoing. Many DIAL staff and other colleagues of ours participate in the Responsible Data community, and last week, active members of this forum collectively worked together to issue a public open letter, detailing specific concerns about the World Food Programme (WFP) -Palantir partnership announcement. We are heartened by those eager to share their insights through this working group, and sincerely hope that the dialogue continues beyond the questions raised by this one partnership.

The Principles for Digital Development community is designed to bring together both experts and implementers who are focused on sustainable and responsible practices in their international development work. We were pleased to see the Principles mentioned in the open letter from Responsible Data last week as a model for the use of data in the humanitarian field. While there’s great promise and benefits for organizations to be data driven, the ongoing value of “do no harm” means embracing the other principles as well, including addressing privacy and security, designing with the user, and leveraging open data.

The strength of the Digital Principles lies in its creation by, and collective support of those in the development space.  In fact, WFP is one of +150 endorsers. Our hope is that the humanitarian field can come together with similar set of overarching guiding practices that can help evaluate procurement and partnership decisions, ensuring that such relationships can leverage the best work of all parties, but do so in a way that respects the individuals we are all here to serve. Endorsing these Principles and participating in the Responsible Data community are good first steps for any organization eager to demonstrate their dedication to responsible data use and can help those groups connect to others who share that commitment.

For our part at DIAL, we commit to continue to share our ongoing learning experiences in the development space, to help programs in the humanitarian space more confidently navigate similar challenges. Over the coming months, you will see more stories from DIAL highlighting the social benefits of responsible data use, and we’ll be sharing advice and field-tested guidance about how to implement data-driven projects, in ethical ways that respect individual privacy.

As a legal figure in the United States once said, “sunlight is the best disinfectant”. All of us must do our best to be open and honest about our questions and struggles, be comfortable with making a mistake or two along the way, and to be open to engage in constructive dialogue with our peers. This is the best way to balance our interests and values so that we can collectively accomplish our development and humanitarian goals.

Have more resources or thoughts to share on this topic? Join us in the Principles for Digital Development Forum.

Michael Downey is the Director of Community for DIAL’s Open Source Center.

Syed Raza is DIAL’s Senior Director, Data for Development.

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