In late June, as a part of our work with Ugandan organisation Albinism Umbrella, we hosted a Community Call about Responsible Data. The call included speakers Amos Doornbos and former Engine Roomer Paola Verhaert and brought together a variety of civil society organisations interested in collecting, managing, and storing data in equitable and responsible ways.
The conversation was centred on the risks and potential harms of data management, and how to go about integrating responsible data into an organisations’ ongoing work. Below are some of the insights that surfaced in the call.
Starting from the top: figuring out what data you are using
Speaker Amos Doornbos pointed out that it is best to start by identifying the ways in which your organisation is using data. It can be easy to underestimate how much data you’re collecting in your day-to-day work, how your team is using it (or not using it!) and what is actually being done with all of it. He introduced the following guiding questions, as well as this short Cheat sheet, to support the process of mapping this out:
- What data is being collected and why?
- Who is collecting it?
- Where is it stored?
- Who is this data shared with?
For further support, The Engine Room’s Becoming RAD! [Retaining, Archiving, and Disposal] Tipsheets can guide you through some of the processes in more detail.
Responsible data as an organisation-wide priority
Our speakers also talked about how important it can be for the whole organisation (and if possible, also the organisation’s partners and the communities they work with) to be involved in conversations about potential risks and harms related to the data the organisation collects, stores and works with. Data is not just an issue for the “tech person” on your team: the consequences of the ways individuals on the team use data will affect the whole of your work. In addition to that, taking your team’s different experiences and perspectives into account is a good way of designing your data strategy and solutions that work for all.
Mitigating risk and potential harm
Much of our conversation focused on the importance of assessing how the data we work with could generate or exacerbate risks for the people reflected in the data. Our speakers shared the following resources to support teams in reflecting on potential risks and harms:
We also talked about how practising data minimisation – that is minimising the amount and the categories of data you collect – can be a good strategy to prevent potential harm. If the data you collect does not serve a purpose for your work, consider deleting it and/or not collecting it all.
Participation is key
Another insight from our speakers referred to consent practices: The communities you serve should be informed about potential risks associated with your use of their data, and should be able to withdraw their consent regarding the data you store at any point. That is why baking participation into your processes is a good practice.
Relatedly, a key point that emerged in the call was this: Responsible data is not a one-off thing. It’s not a conversation you have once (for example, at the moment that you’re collecting data from the people you work with). Context regularly changes (and so do the potential risks you and your organisation face), so plan accordingly. One way to do this is by creating user-friendly check-ins throughout your project to inform people about what’s happening with their data, making room for them to exercise their agency and select whether to opt-in or out.
Be specific and realistic with your data management goals
A different suggestion that came up in the call is to avoid broad and abstract recommendations and processes when implementing responsible data practices in your organisation. Paola Verhaert highlighted how important it is to make them clear and practical, so that they can be implemented easily. Staff might not have extra time on their hands to spend on this, so being specific and realistic with your data management goals is a good way of making sure your team is able to implement them.
Where to start?
Changing the way your organisation operates can seem overwhelming. If you need support advocating for changes around your data practices, look for allies both within your own organisation and in the sector (the Responsible Data Community might be a good place to start!). If you’d like targeted advice on how to incorporate Responsible Data into your work, reach out to us for Light Touch Support.
Below are more Responsible Data resources:
- This short overview of Responsible Data Principles, as well as this Responsible Data Resource List document.
- International Federation of Red Cross’s Data Playbook.
- A complete, illustrated guide to Responsible Data for anyone working in the development sector: Responsible Data in Development Toolkit (2016).
- Monitoring, Evaluation, Research, and Learning (MERL) Tech’s short article including 5 tips on Operationalising Responsible Data Policy. You can also check out other resources available on merltech.org/resources.
- This blog post on how to start your responsible data journey (and many more gathered on the Information Management Resource Portal).