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Human-Centered Data Governance and Better Public Digital Service Delivery in Developing Countries

It is easy to lose sight of people when discussing data governance policies, and instead focus on technical jargon, legal arcana, and cryptic acronyms. Data governance is more than practices to collect, process, manage, and share data. It is ultimately about generating trust among people and persuading them to use and adopt digital services.

For the average citizen, the theoretical, legal, and technical foundations of data governance are less important than the quality of their experience with the data-driven products and services that the government provides. When using a government service, they ask themselves:

  • Can I interact with the service in the language I speak?
  • Does the service recognize me as a legitimate person (not merely a “user”) and does it not marginalize me?
  • Can I be confident that the business models and operational processes of the service providers are designed to benefit me and my community? Or are the business models weighted in favor of data collectors in ways that can cause implicit or explicit digital harm?
  • Does the service have an overt or implied seal of approval from my social or professional network?
  • Do I recognize my value systems, social norms, and beliefs in the way the service is designed?

As many international development practitioners will attest, the answers to most of these questions in developing countries often tend to be negative. For historical, social, economic, and political reasons beyond the scope of this short paper, the digital development ecosystem, which includes data governance practices, is still largely centered around the norms, preferences, and capabilities of people and institutions in advanced economies. In developing countries, the spoils of data-driven development often go to communities, groups, and companies that either serve international markets or represent social groups that share the knowledge systems and technical capabilities of their counterparts in advanced economies. Digital development practitioners are still in the early days of reaching large populations in developing countries with services and products specifically designed for the average person.

New research series

In order to understand the reality on the ground, the Digital Impact Alliance has produced three mini-briefs based on initiatives in mostly developing countries that seek to reach and provide highly localized digital products and services for digitally marginalized populations through a human-centered approach to data governance. These briefs cover:

  • Local language projects and programs designed to make data-driven services available to people who don’t speak or write the seven or eight languages that currently dominate the digital ecosystem
  • Services designed to provide voice and access to populations often unaddressed by traditional government digital services, including communities as varied as small fishers in Mexico and drug users, sex workers, and incarcerated people in Moldova
  • Data sharing models centered on providing value from data to people and communities that create the data or who the data is about, rather than to companies or entities that gather or capture this data

This is only a subset of the dimensions of human-centered data governance, but a few trends common to many of the examples above may be broadly applicable.

  • Oftentimes, developing countries are more advanced in the field of human-centered data governance than developed countries. There are many examples of developing countries taking the lead in aspects of data governance that are most relevant to them and developing policy ideas that may be relevant to advanced economies as well.
  • Some policy ideas, such as data collaboratives or data trusts, that had been initially conceptualized in the Global North are being refined and reshaped to reflect the conditions in certain developing countries. This provides an interesting interplay between ideas from the Global North and the realities in the Global South.
  • One key factor is the vital role that many community organizations, most of which pre-date the advent of digital services in their midst, can play in increasing access to and trust in data-driven products and services deployed at local levels.
Download the first Spotlight: Speaking in Tongues

Key takeaways from the series

  1. Data is an abstract term for the average citizen. People, rather than data, must be at the center of data governance policies.
  2. Placing people at the center of data governance means developing public digital products and services that:
    1. Speak and provide information in the language of the people they serve and understand local nuances
    2. Include everyone, especially populations marginalized by traditional service delivery models
    3. Visibly incorporate data sharing and access business models and operational processes that put human participants at the center
    4. Represent the social, community, and ethical norms of the local population rather than ahistorical or non-contextual global practices
    5. Recognize social, technical, economic, and power asymmetries that better data alone cannot resolve and provide benefits without harming the population in explicit or tacit ways
  3. Human-centered data governance policies and practices are evolving unequally around the world. However, there’s a growing pool of initiatives in developing countries rooted in their specific local contexts that can serve as useful examples and inspiration for other governments.
  4. Local community organizations often play an outsized role in connecting people safely and effectively with public data initiatives. Governments must develop engagement models to take advantage of social trust networks developed by established communities.