Committing to a Responsible Data Revolution

By Neha Rauf


Data scientists evaluate satellite data at the Center for Satellite-based Crisis Information. Photo courtesy of DLR German Aerospace Center, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

The Push for a Data Revolution

In order to accomplish the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the international community is rallying for a data revolution. The emphasis has been on increased access, interoperability, and actionable use of data, omitting necessary considerations of responsible use. Moving forward, the push for a data revolution which spans international development organizations and the private sector needs to be reined in by common ethics standards.

Thus far, there is no set of universal standards nor a United Nations (UN) body that advocates for responsible data and holds development organizations and their private sector partners accountable for irresponsible data use, which puts vulnerable populations at risk. The Responsible Data Forum (RDF), first hosted in 2014, operates under this definition for responsible use of data: “The duty to ensure people’s rights to consent, privacy, security and ownership around the information processes of collection, analysis, storage, presentation and reuse of data, while respecting the values of transparency and openness.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appointed an Independent Expert Advisory Group (IEAG) on the Data Revolution for Sustainable Development in 2015 to shape the vision going forward as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) transitioned to the SDGs. The term “responsible data” does not appear in their principal report, “A World That Counts: Mobilizing the Data Revolution for Sustainable Development.” The IEAG recommends, however, that the UN help establish a “Global Consensus on Data” to adopt principles. While they acknowledge common principles are needed, many questions remain unanswered. How do development actors reach a balance between sharing data and being transparent, and protecting the rights and safety of vulnerable peoples?

Similarly, the newly launched multi-stakeholder Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data also does not explicitly mention responsible data use in its goals. They do seek to produce an inventory of existing principles and highlight gaps, and then extract common principles for an emerging data system. Still, terms like “norms,” “ethics,” and “responsible use” should be included and emphasized in their goals.

“It is unethical for researchers to justify their actions as ethical simply because the data is accessible,” wrote Danah Boyd and Kate Crawford from Microsoft Research in a 2011 report about Big Data. Irresponsible data use in development can not only result in wasted resources and damaged relationships, but more importantly can lead to harm for at-risk groups or individuals.

This article will explore the norms for ethics that are developing in the field of data for development particularly with the use of geospatial data, and what progress still needs to be made and how different actors can come together to establish these norms.

Existing agendas for responsible data use

There have been a few initial frameworks and efforts put forth to harmonize responsible data standards between various actors in the development field. The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs published a report in May 2016 proposing an initial framework.

A handful of actors, including Amnesty International, The Engine Room, and Open Knowledge came together to form the Responsible Data Forum, which holds events, seeks to foster discussion between communities, and advocates for responsible data use. But they are not reaching multinational corporations, government or national statistical agencies, or development implementing agencies.

The International Data Responsibility Group (IDRG) is another effort between various actors to responsibly guide the data revolution and includes the UN organization Global Pulse, Data & Society, and the Governance Lab at New York University. They hold an annual conference with a new theme each year, as well as publish a report detailing annual trends in data for development. The IDRG was only officially launched last year and the first report has yet to be released. The IDRG and the RDF plan to collaborate and create an online repository to disseminate tools and publications related to responsible data use—this should help the two main bodies working on this issue communicate.

However, these groups still do not include the vast majority of the private sector, companies providing telecommunication data or geospatial data that could affect vulnerable populations, or national development implementing agencies. Furthermore, the UN itself, who championed the need for a data revolution, has not published widely accepted guidelines for data scientists and development implementers to operate under to ensure people are protected from the risks of irresponsible data use. One of the main concerns in pursuing the data revolution is the breadth of actors, data, affected people, etc. encompassed in data for development. It is essential that actors are communicating and developing norms in a coordinated manner, rather than forming disparate systems and guidelines.

Moreover, national statistical agencies, development agencies, and data scientists are being pushed by organizations dedicated to the data revolution to make all of their data available online and available for use by other organizations. Similar to how most private companies, universities, civil society organizations, etc., adhere to the Fair Labor Association principles to ensure fair labor standards across the world—there needs to be an internationally accepted set of standards and norms that governs the collection of data, dissemination and the use of data in development.

 Case Study: Risks in Geospatial Data Use

Geospatial data and satellite imagery are increasingly used in development and to pursue the SDGs. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are used to track changing agricultural environments, growing populations in refugee camps, to prepare plans for emergency and disaster risk management, etc. However, when this information involves vulnerable populations or personally identifiable information (PII), the data can be misused or prove dangerous to the vulnerable populations.

For example, satellite imagery was used to monitor the border between Sudan and South Sudan to detect threats to civilians, evidence of mass graves, and troops massing. However, making this data accessible also gives a potential advantage to armed actors who could use the data for harm. The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and Satellite Sentinel Project were the first civil society groups to use high-resolution satellite imagery to provide early warnings of potential threats to the conflict-affected population in this region—because there were no standards and guidelines for responsibly releasing the data they collected, they had to terminate the partnership.

With the increased focus on more data, interoperability of data, open and actionable data, the risks and ethical considerations of using that data must go hand in hand with the data revolution for sustainable development.

Coordinated norms needed for data use in development

While international momentum for the data revolution for development remains and as existing and new actors come together, now is the time to develop a code for responsible data use. A guiding set of principles must be developed and standardized globally for data scientists, the private sector, and development actors as new data is collected and disseminated.

An organization that convenes important development actors, such as the GPSDD or a UN body such as OCHA needs to take the lead and communicate with stakeholders in data for development to provide a framework for responsible data use as the pursuit of the SDGs and the data revolution move forward.

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