Since 2014, when then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for a global effort to bring about a data revolution in sustainable development, it’s become increasingly clear that our personal data is not some abstract entity stored on a computer somewhere in space. To the contrary, current events have shown now more than ever the extent to which our data reflect ourselves and the ways data can be used both for and against us. Data holds power to improve lives. But people’s personal data can also be used against them. This is especially true for activists, members of minority communities and persecuted people from diverse backgrounds.

Today, while data for development remains high on the international agenda, concerns about governance and power dynamics are rising related to a range of issues—from tech monopolization, vendor lock-in and exploitative business models to regulatory gaps and the unequal distribution of the benefits of the data revolution. Yet connections between these issues and sustainable development remain vague, confusing and poorly understood. In the face of increasing evidence of the results of malicious data practices, the Data Values Project and DataReady hosted a much-needed conversation about the role of development practitioners in empowering people and reducing inequities. 

This online conversation—Dissecting Digital Power Inequities: reflections from digital rights experts for development practitioners—sought to highlight current issues related to digital rights, data governance and power inequity in the context of the data revolution for sustainable development. 

Here are five recommendations that emerged from the discussion for development practitioners to consider and use in shaping conversations and action around digital inequities and data governance:

  1. Acknowledge harmful business models to rethink data practices in development. Current data business models and practices—even in the context of development—exacerbate the digital divide,  trigger profound inequities and produce new challenges to the goals of sustainable development. The development community must rethink its data practices and approaches to avoid reproducing harmful models and further disempowering marginalized communities. 
  2. Center conversations about data justice. The principles of data justice should guide discussions around individual and community privacy rights, data sovereignty and access to key infrastructure. Dialogue is important but not sufficient: Regulations—especially at the national level—are important to protect people and lay the groundwork for a fairer data economy. Practitioners should incorporate principles of data justice into the context of data for sustainable development, including issues of inclusiveness, data disaggregation and more.
  3. Support fair data economies and responsible governance. Government actions impact public trust in the data economy. Governments strengthen trust by establishing rules and digital rights protections that give citizens control of their personal data. Governments erode trust when they take negative or repressive stances toward digital spaces, reduce individuals’ digital rights or limit freedom of expression online, as is currently happening in a number of countries around the world. The development community should monitor and highlight government abuses while sustaining country-level efforts to establish fair, rules-based data economies. 
  4. Put people at the heart of data design. Designing data systems for people and empowering citizens to control their personal data are two essential steps to addressing data inequities. People need access to the design-stage process of data collecting, analysis, dissemination and use. And, they need the skills, knowledge and agency to determine how their personal data is used. This requires investing in research, alternative models and creative experimentation to empower historically excluded communities to develop and implement local solutions for their digital future.
  5. Level up technical capacity and data practices in development. The development and humanitarian sectors must step up their game when it comes to data practices. It’s time for data awareness to be mainstreamed within these sectors. Donors also play an important role: They should take a hard look at their own policies and practices around data and digitalization to assess the roles they play in structuring incentives. Donors should take the lead in discussing best practices, sharing lessons learned and rewarding good data approaches.

We need more conversations that break down the sectoral and ideological divisions between digital and human rights activists and development practitioners. We are two sides of the same coin and as such, must work together to ensure equitable outcomes and create accountable and transparent systems. It’s our responsibility to put power back into the hands of the people whose data is being used. 

  • A full description of this online conversation is available here. The online conversation, Dissecting Digital Power Inequalities, was recorded live on June 22. Tom Orrell, founder and managing director of DataReady, organized and moderated the discussion. His blog post on the personal experiences that led to him organizing this event is available here. The session’s participants included human rights lawyer Renata Avila, digital rights advocate and consultant Linda Raftree, and surveillance and development scholar Linda Raftree, and Paradigm Initiative founder ‘Gbenga Sesan. For a detailed description of themes emerging from the event, please click hereTom Orrell of Data Ready, Beverly Hatcher-Mbu of Development Gateway, and Martina Barbero and Janet McLaren of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data contributed to this post.