How can data create a better world? What would a “better world” be? What needs to change? And what do we—as a community—have the power to change?
These are the questions we’ve been asking in the Data Values Project—a policy consultation and advocacy campaign that kicked off early this year. In 2021, more than 200 people from 50 countries contributed to these ongoing discussions. This edition of the Data Values Digest—the last of 2021—is a bit different as we’re sharing highlights from what we’ve heard so far.
Envisioning a better data future: agency, equity, participation, and utility
Contributors to the Data Values Project include people within the Global Partnership’s network of practitioners, policymakers, and advocates along with others from across the globe. The world that this community wants to see puts people and the issues they care about at the center of data collection and use. In this ideal future, people have agency in (or the power to shape) how their data is collected, stored, and used; they are perceived and treated as more than data subjects. Communities control how problems are defined and measured and how their data is collected and used.
In this world, data is used to address long-standing inequities of opportunity within and among countries. Marginalized and persecuted communities are empowered—not harmed—by data. Companies and governments use data to make better policy decisions that increase equity and leave no one behind.
We envision a future in which formal and informal governance mechanisms protect rights, enable participation, and address power imbalances that drive data use and misuse. These mechanisms include people from affected communities as a counterweight to existing power dynamics. Policies developed through multi-stakeholder governance upend typical top-down solutions and consider the inevitable trade-offs involved in data collection, storage, and use through ongoing, participatory processes.
Data powers sustainable and equitable development in this ideal world. The utility of data is fully explored—neither data graveyards nor political incentives to ignore or misuse data are acceptable. Instead, policymakers responsibly use and reuse data for decision making to increase equity and prosperity. Decision makers invest in cultures of innovative data collection, sharing, use, and reuse.
Assembling a toolkit for change
Through the Data Values Project, we’ve brought together thinking and experience from across the sector to craft a vision for a way forward based on innovative data governance approaches and new models for inclusive, equitable, and sustainable development data. These efforts recognize that data in development must be values-driven and no longer regarded as a purely technical endeavor.
Change starts with governments, companies, and—in the development sector—with donors and practitioners. Beverly Hatcher-Mbu wrote about this in the Digest earlier this year, pointing out that the international community continues to see Haitians as recipients of aid and to ignore the data and solutions developed by Haitians themselves. Technical Advisory Group members Josh Powell and Tom Orrell have each written about the serious harms that can result from good-intentioned development activities that include collecting and storing people’s data. That’s why organizations like GiveDirectly center the needs and interests of people who are experiencing poverty above program goals or potential benefits, as Caroline Teti explained.
Gwen Phillips of the Ktunaxa Nation told us that Canada’s First Nations are asking for more than just to be counted. They want the government to let local communities set the agenda for development and collect data that represents their priorities. Similarly, the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) Indigenous Alliance advocates for Indigenous Data Sovereignty, to strengthen people’s right to participate in decision making in ways that are consistent with their values and collective interests.
Beyond the technical tools to enable this change, discussions in the Data Values Project have focused on the human side of interoperability. We’ve explored the building blocks for effective public-private data sharing in Africa and beyond and the need for institutional strategies to incentivize a culture of data use.
There are already many good examples of participatory data governance from within and outside this network. As the Global Partnership’s Karen Bett explained, African national statistical offices are increasingly seeking to engage people in participatory governance models. The Ada Lovelace Institute this year published a guide for how participatory data stewardship can give people control over their data. We’ve also written about the people on the front lines of climate change who are best placed to create and report on its effects. Partners from the GovLab contributed a thoughtful evaluation of ways that data can address racial, social, and economic inequalities. And the Inclusive Data Charter champions published a toolkit for intersectional approaches to data in development.
The Global Partnership encompasses practitioners, policymakers, and advocates united in the belief that data can lead to a more prosperous, just, and sustainable world. But our optimism has been shaken as the speed of technological change has outstripped our ability to manage it, resulting in inequalities exacerbated by digital technology and data, as well as exploitation and abuse. Envisioning a better future requires defining our values and building a path to that future through collaboration and listening to affected communities.
As 2021 comes to an end, we’re preparing for the next stage of the Data Values Project by distilling what we’re hearing into recommendations for change. Stay tuned for a White Paper to be published for public comment in Spring with emerging recommendations for a collective advocacy agenda to put values at the heart of data. With the emergence of the omicron variant, we’re likely to see efforts across the globe to tackle and build back from the global pandemic redouble, even as new variants arise. Data is a critical tool for this. Here at Digest we’ll continue to question assumptions about data, power and development. As always, we welcome contributors to this Digest and your feedback. Get in touch at DataValues@data4sdgs.org, or tell us what you think in the comments below.