Article by our Digital Learning and Youth Leadership Program Lead, Hamza Arsbi
Humanitarian and International Development organizations tackle global challenges every day and they often use data to increase their impact, from biometric information of refugees to statistical data, the development sector has access to a wealth of information. With this amount of power, it is the organizations’ responsibility to consider how the humanitarian community handles this data to support their effort while maintaining the privacy, security, and dignity of the communities they serve.
In order to ‘do no harm’, humanitarians must be able to navigate the technical and ethical issues involved with working with data about crisis-affected people. Data responsibility involves understanding the risks and harm that can come from collecting and processing data about affected people and making informed decisions about storing and using such data. The European Commission with its Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations department (ECHO), the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and others have been working to tackle such questions.
Ensuring Privacy and Consent
Collecting Data must come with an understanding of the responsibility the organization has to the community and people it works with. A clear Consent process must be implemented that ensures those providing the data know what is being collected, where it will be stored, and how it will be used. Even if the person providing the data is willing to give a blanket authorization, it is the organization that should increase their awareness of the risks to privacy and limit its use of the data within a reasonable scope.
Zara Rahman urges development agency workers to think of the data from another perspective. Asking how it would feel and what would you agree to if it was your data being used?
Keeping public interest and personal privacy in mind while handling data will lead organizations to find new ways that engage stakeholders in the data collection process and give them more agency over their own data.
Understanding Power Imbalances in the Humanitarian Sector
The humanitarian sector has a clear power imbalance as agencies ask people who are underserved, refugees, or in dire need of assistance to hand over their data so they can access the resources the agency has to offer.
This power imbalance takes away agency and control of personal privacy and information from the beneficiary communities and puts it in the hands of development organizations. Understanding and being mindful of this issue, organizations must seek new ways of engaging the stakeholders, correcting the imbalance of power, and realizing their responsibility for taking care of the data they collect in the best possible way.
Securing the Collection and Storage of Data
From something as personal as biometric data to as general as spending habits, data is collected at an increasing scope. Organizations must understand the power and responsibility of having this data. Implementing the latest data protection and security strategies is vital. Not only buying highly secure systems and tools but also ensuring the team understands Digital Security and is aware of the risks they might face. Having a holistic approach to this responsibility can protect many people and maintain their privacy.
Another consideration is the importance of data. Organizations working with at-risk populations should not only think about how to collect the data securely but if the data needs to be collected at all. For example, while it is beneficial for the organization’s funding efforts to showcase metrics such as diversity and inclusion by collecting data on LGBTQ+ populations, is the organization truly in need of such information and is it up to the task of ensuring it does not fall in the wrong hands? These are discussions that must be had to ensure good-intentioned work does not cause real-world harm to people.
Weighing the Benefits of Big Data
As this article has been arguing for the grave weight of responsibility placed on organizations that decide to collect data from their stakeholders, it is important to then make the most use of the data collected.
Creating a real culture of Data-Driven Development is important. Utilizing Data to influence policy and strategy is vital to future progress. Data is abundant, technology has advanced the way we process and analyze it, but what we do with the information produced is a different story as many organizations struggle to shift focus or strategy that has been part of their institutional DNA even if it runs counter to what data is showing.
Adopting a new mindset, creating cross-sector partnerships, and moving to more agile organizational structures can be supported by data to drive real impact that changes lives.