Effective and trustworthy data sharing must be clearly rooted in societal values and held accountable to the highest ethical and operational standards. 

In the last two years, more than 350 individuals and organizations from over 60 countries participated in a public consultation process that led to the launch of a #DataValues Manifesto calling on governments, companies, civil society organizations, donors, and others to make positive changes in how data is funded, designed, managed, and used. Its five calls to action and the evidence collected for its underpinning white paper, “Reimagining Data and Power,” show that development practitioners truly want to establish value-driven and ethical data sharing.

Values and ethics can be embedded in the governance of initiatives and their operations in many different ways, such as through ethical frameworks or specific governance structures.

Ethical frameworks and guidelines

Various frameworks and guidelines can help data sharing initiatives to interrogate the ethics of their governance and operations. Some are generally applicable, while others are tailored to specific types of data or contexts.

The Open Data Institute, for instance, has developed the Data Ethics Canvas, a tool for identifying and managing ethical issues in data projects. This tool provides a framework to develop ethical guidance to suit data sharing initiatives, regardless of their scope, size, or sector.

In 2021, the Data for Children Collaborative released its Ethical Assessment Framework. This document recognizes that children have specific vulnerabilities when it comes to data and that, in this context, “delivering an ethical Data for Children project requires more than just legal compliance.” The framework provides a roadmap, including a series of questions to be answered at the inception stage, during the project, and at the final stage, with the objective of ethically navigating all activities.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Centre for Humanitarian Data recently developed Data Responsibility Guidelines, a set of principles, processes, and tools to support data responsibility in OCHA’s humanitarian work. This document offers the minimum standard to follow for data responsibility across OCHA and recognizes the great risks that irresponsible data management poses to already vulnerable communities.

Boards and committees for ethical assessment

Since 2020, the Data-Pop Alliance has included a Council for the Orientation of Development and Ethics, or CODE, in most of its projects. A CODE is a group of independent stakeholders who voluntarily share their expertise in areas of direct relevance to a project. As an advisory group, it provides oversight to ensure a project abides by key ethical principles, including fair and safe use of data and local, context-specific concerns. CODEs are typically comprised of around 10 local experts from academia, civil society, government, and private enterprise. The advisory role of CODE members is not legally binding. Nonetheless, project implementation teams give considerable weight to their feedback and integrate CODE recommendations whenever possible.

When Dalberg Data Insights started work with the Belgian Government on the use of anonymized telecommunications data and localized incidence data to monitor the impact of lockdown measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, it set up an Ethics Committee composed of experts from different disciplines and backgrounds. This group of experts monitored the project throughout its life cycle and was tasked with raising any ethical concerns. The committee’s role was particularly important considering both the urgency of the situation and the constraints that COVID-19 restrictions posed on collecting feedback from the public.