Posted 18 December, 2013 by Christopher Wilson

Responsible Data: Concepts and Resources

There’s been a lot of interest bubbling up around responsible data issues, from different communities and with different frames. From academic interest in the ethics of data, to critical perspectives from within the development sector, to concerns about the relationship between surveillance and open government; there are a lot of questions being asked, and no easy answers.

The engine room’s focus is on how advocacy initiatives can use data and technology responsibly, without inadvertently harming their stakeholders, their communities, or their own work. We’d like to see this better integrated and complementing some of the other great work that’s being done. So to ground some of the conversations we’d like to have, here’s some of what we’re thinking and how we’re mapping resources.


There are so many issues at play and so many things to consider when we talk about responsible data, that we find ourselves spending a lot of time talking about conceptual distinctions. This isn’t entirely academic. Disentangling ideas like privacy, anonymity and re-identification makes it easier to identify risks and find the tools and strategies to meet them in real world work. So we’ve started working out a conceptual framework to clarify our thinking, and get input on how it all fits together.

To start, we’re considering four main concepts and how they can cause harm (to individuals, communities, projects):

  • Identity: including issues of privacy, anonymity and reidentification

  • Consent: when and how to get it and from whom

  • Agency: how data subjects exercise control over where and how their data is used,

  • Re-use of data: how to anticipate and prevent misuse when releasing or sharing information

As we continue talking with doers and thinkers, we’ll plot actual responsible data challenges and experiences onto these categories. We’ll then use this frame to look for trends and patterns at different decision points in projects and at different phases in the data value chain.

(You can check out the draft framework here. It’s a living document, a bit messy, and goes deep into the conceptual weeds, but we’d love feedback.  We’ll also be updating this as our thinking develops.)

Resource Mapping

Thinking about responsible advocacy in the context of data and advocacy presents a number of novel challenges, but there’s experience to draw from in the fields of ethics, privacy and security. Similarly, we know that the most useful tools likely won’t be built from scratch, but will adapt and build on what’s already being used. So we’ve started trying to map what’s out there.

You can see and contribute to our running list at

Most of what we’ve uncovered so far is focused on privacy, humanitarian work and operational security. There are some examples of standards and guidelines for these areas, but a lot of what we are surfacing is background articles or issue briefs. There’s a definitive lack practical tools. Of course, there’s probably a lot we haven’t found yet, and we’d love your help in filling the gaps.

Moving Forward: the Responsible Data Forum

This mapping and conceptual framework are obviously works in progress, and we’ll be updating them as we find more and refine our thinking. We also know that we can do that best in collaboration, so welcome inputs and contributions, as always.

The Responsible Data Forum will be key for collecting inputs and keeping focused on serving a community of activists with real world problems. We’ll be kicking off the Forum in March 2014, and there will be more updates soon on cities, dates and opportunities to get involved. So keep an eye on the blog or get in touch if you’d like to know more.

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