UN Data Strategy

United Nations: “As structural UN reforms consolidate, we are focused on building the data, digital, technology and innovation capabilities that the UN needs to succeed in the 21st century. The Secretary General’s “Data Strategy for Action by Everyone, Everywhere” is our agenda for the data-driven transformation.

Data permeates all aspects of our work, and its power—harnessed responsibly—is critical to the global agendas we serve. The UN family’s footprint, expertise and connectedness create unique opportunities to advance global “data action” with insight, impact and integrity. To help unlock more potential, 50 UN entities jointly designed this Strategy as a comprehensive playbook for data-driven change based on global best practice…

Our strategy pursues a simple idea: we focus not on process, but on learning, iteratively, to deliver data use cases that add value for stakeholders based on our vision, outcomes and principles. Use cases – purposes for which data is used – already permeate our organization. We will systematically identify and deliver them through dedicated data action portfolios. While new capabilities will in part emerge through “learning by doing”, we will also strengthen organizational enablers to deliver on our vision, including shifts in people and culture, partnerships, data governance and technology….(More)”.

United Nations Data Strategy

Rapid Multi-Dimensional Impact Assessment of Floods

Paper by David Pastor-Escuredo et al: “Natural disasters affect hundreds of millions of people worldwide every year. The impact assessment of a disaster is key to improve the response and mitigate how a natural hazard turns into a social disaster. An actionable quantification of impact must be integratively multi-dimensional. We propose a rapid impact assessment framework that comprises detailed geographical and temporal landmarks as well as the potential socio-economic magnitude of the disaster based on heterogeneous data sources: Environment sensor data, social media, remote sensing, digital topography, and mobile phone data.

As dynamics of floods greatly vary depending on their causes, the framework may support different phases of decision-making during the disaster management cycle. To evaluate its usability and scope, we explored four flooding cases with variable conditions. The results show that social media proxies provide a robust identification with daily granularity even when rainfall detectors fail. The detection also provides information of the magnitude of the flood, which is potentially useful for planning. Network analysis was applied to the social media to extract patterns of social effects after the flood. This analysis showed significant variability in the obtained proxies, which encourages the scaling of schemes to comparatively characterize patterns across many floods with different contexts and cultural factors.

This framework is presented as a module of a larger data-driven system designed to be the basis for responsive and more resilient systems in urban and rural areas. The impact-driven approach presented may facilitate public–private collaboration and data sharing by providing real-time evidence with aggregated data to support the requests of private data with higher granularity, which is the current most important limitation in implementing fully data-driven systems for disaster response from both local and international actors…(More)”.

Big data, privacy and COVID-19 – learning from humanitarian expertise in data protection

Andrej Zwitter & Oskar J. Gstrein at the Journal of International Humanitarian Action: “The use of location data to control the coronavirus pandemic can be fruitful and might improve the ability of governments and research institutions to combat the threat more quickly. It is important to note that location data is not the only useful data that can be used to curb the current crisis. Genetic data can be relevant for AI enhanced searches for vaccines and monitoring online communication on social media might be helpful to keep an eye on peace and security (Taulli n.d.). However, the use of such large amounts of data comes at a price for individual freedom and collective autonomy. The risks of the use of such data should ideally be mitigated through dedicated legal frameworks which describe the purpose and objectives of data use, its collection, analysis, storage and sharing, as well as the erasure of ‘raw’ data once insights have been extracted. In the absence of such clear and democratically legitimized norms, one can only resort to fundamental rights provisions such as Article 8 paragraph 2 of the ECHR that reminds us that any infringement of rights such as privacy need to be in accordance with law, necessary in a democratic society, pursuing a legitimate objective and proportionate in their application.

However as shown above, legal frameworks including human rights standards are currently not capable of effectively ensuring data protection, since they focus too much on the individual as the point of departure. Hence, we submit that currently applicable guidelines and standards for responsible data use in the humanitarian sector should also be fully applicable to corporate, academic and state efforts which are currently enacted to curb the COVID-19 crisis globally. Instead of ‘re-calibrating’ the expectations of individuals on their own privacy and collective autonomy, the requirements for the use of data should be broader and more comprehensive. Applicable principles and standards as developed by OCHA, the 510 project of the Dutch Red Cross, or by academic initiatives such as the Signal Code are valid minimum standards during a humanitarian crisis. Hence, they are also applicable minimum standards during the current pandemic.

Core findings that can be extracted from these guidelines and standards for the practical implementation into data driven responses to COVIC-19 are:

  • data sensitivity is highly contextual; one and the same data can be sensitive in different contexts. Location data during the current pandemic might be very useful for epidemiological analysis. However, if (ab-)used to re-calibrate political power relations, data can be open for misuse. Hence, any party supplying data and data analysis needs to check whether data and insights can be misused in the context they are presented.
  • privacy and data protection are important values; they do not disappear during a crisis. Nevertheless, they have to be weighed against respective benefits and risks.
  • data-breaches are inevitable; with time (t) approaching infinity, the chance of any system being hacked or becoming insecure approaches 100%. Hence, it is not a question of whether, but when. Therefore, organisations have to prepare sound data retention and deletion policies.
  • data ethics is an obligation to provide high quality analysis; using machine learning and big data might be appealing for the moment, but the quality of source data might be low, and results might be unreliable, or even harmful. Biases in incomplete datasets, algorithms and human users are abundant and widely discussed. We must not forget that in times of crisis, the risk of bias is more pronounced, and more problematic due to the vulnerability of data subjects and groups. Therefore, working to the highest standards of data processing and analysis is an ethical obligation.

The adherence to these principles is particularly relevant in times of crisis such as now, where they mark the difference between societies that focus on control and repression on the one hand, and those who believe in freedom and autonomy on the other. Eventually, we will need to think of including data policies into legal frameworks for state of emergency regulations, and coordinate with corporate stakeholders as well as private organisations on how to best deal with such crises. Data-driven practices have to be used in a responsible manner. Furthermore, it will be important to observe whether data practices and surveillance assemblages introduced under current circumstances will be rolled back to status quo ante when returning to normalcy. If not, our rights will become hollowed out, just waiting for the next crisis to eventually become irrelevant….(More)”.

Protecting Data Privacy and Rights During a Crisis are Key to Helping the Most Vulnerable in Our Community

Blog by Amen Ra Mashariki: “Governments should protect the data and privacy rights of their communities even during emergencies. It is a false trade-off to require more data without protection. We can and should do both — collect the appropriate data and protect it. Establishing and protecting the data rights and privacy of our communities’ underserved, underrepresented, disabled, and vulnerable residents is the only way we can combat the negative impact of COVID-19 or any other crisis.

Building trust is critical. Governments can strengthen data privacy protocols, beef up transparency mechanisms, and protect the public’s data rights in the name of building trust — especially with the most vulnerable populations. Otherwise, residents will opt out of engaging with government, and without their information, leaders like first responders will be blind to their existence when making decisions and responding to emergencies, as we are seeing with COVID-19.

As Chief Analytics Officer of New York City, I often remembered the words of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, especially with regards to using data during emergencies, that there are “known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns, and we will always get hurt by the unknown unknowns.” Meaning the things we didn’t know — the data that we didn’t have — was always going to be what hurt us during times of emergencies….

There are three key steps that governments can do right now to use data most effectively to respond to emergencies — both for COVID-19 and in the future.

Seek Open Data First

In times of crisis and emergencies, many believe that government and private entities, either purposefully or inadvertently, are willing to trample on the data rights of the public in the name of appropriate crisis response. This should not be a trade-off. We can respond to crises while keeping data privacy and data rights in the forefront of our minds. Rather than dismissing data rights, governments can start using data that is already openly available. This seems like a simple step, but it does two very important things. First, it forces you to understand the data that is already available in your jurisdiction. Second, it grows your ability to fill the gaps with respect to what you know about the city by looking outside of city government. …(More)”.

The Responsible Data for Children (RD4C) Case Studies

Andrew Young at Datastewards.net: “This week, as part of the Responsible Data for Children initiative (RD4C), the GovLab and UNICEF launched a new case study series to provide insights on promising practice as well as barriers to realizing responsible data for children.

Drawing upon field-based research and established good practice, RD4C aims to highlight and support responsible handling of data for and about children; identify challenges and develop practical tools to assist practitioners in evaluating and addressing them; and encourage a broader discussion on actionable principles, insights, and approaches for responsible data management.

RD4C launched in October 2019 with the release of the RD4C Synthesis ReportSelected Readings, and the RD4C Principles: Purpose-Driven, People-Centric, Participatory, Protective of Children’s Rights, Proportional, Professionally Accountable, and Prevention of Harms Across the Data Lifecycle.

The RD4C Case Studies analyze data systems deployed in diverse country environments, with a focus on their alignment with the RD4C Principles. This week’s release includes case studies arising from field missions to Romania, Kenya, and Afghanistan in 2019. The data systems examined are:

The potential of Data Collaboratives for COVID19

Blog post by Stefaan Verhulst: “We live in almost unimaginable times. The spread of COVID-19 is a human tragedy and global crisis that will impact our communities for many years to come. The social and economic costs are huge and mounting, and they are already contributing to a global slowdown. Every day, the emerging pandemic reveals new vulnerabilities in various aspects of our economic, political and social lives. These include our vastly overstretched public health services, our dysfunctional political climate, and our fragile global supply chains and financial markets.

The unfolding crisis is also making shortcomings clear in another area: the way we re-use data responsibly. Although this aspect of the crisis has been less remarked upon than other, more obvious failures, those who work with data—and who have seen its potential to impact the public good—understand that we have failed to create the necessary governance and institutional structures that would allow us to harness data responsibly to halt or at least limit this pandemic. A recent article in Stat, an online journal dedicated to health news, characterized the COVID-19 outbreak as “a once-in-a-century evidence fiasco.” The article continues: 

“At a time when everyone needs better information, […] we lack reliable evidence on how many people have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 or who continue to become infected. Better information is needed to guide decisions and actions of monumental significance and to monitor their impact.” 

It doesn’t have to be this way, and these data challenges are not an excuse for inaction. As we explain in what follows, there is ample evidence that the re-use of data can help mitigate health pandemics. A robust (if somewhat unsystematized) body of knowledge could direct policymakers and others in their efforts. In the second part of this article, we outline eight steps that key stakeholders can and should take to better re-use data in the fight against COVID-19. In particular, we argue that more responsible data stewardship and increased use of data collaboratives are critical….(More)”. 

Ask a Scientist

NYU Press Release: “Unreliable tips on how to protect oneself from the novel coronavirus and fake news about the COVID-19 pandemic are spreading as quickly as the virus itself.

The Governance Lab (The GovLab) at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering has collaborated with the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and the State of New Jersey Office of Innovation to launch a free, interactive tool aimed at cutting through the noise and presenting clear, scientist-led, and evidence-based information and advice to the public.

Available in English and Spanish, “Ask a Scientist,” allows users to find answers to a wide range of commonly asked questions about the virus, the severity of the outbreak, best methods of prevention, and steps to take in the event you fall ill. All posted content is obtained from the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other rigorously verified sources.

screenshot of website that allows users to type in questions about COVID-19

“Ask a Scientist” features a free, interactive tool allowing users to submit questions to a team of FAS researchers and a crowdsourced network of vetted science experts. In English and Spanish, the site also includes top articles and the latest information, and answers to a wide range of commonly asked questions about the COVID-19 epidemic, the severity of the outbreak, best methods of prevention, and steps to take in the event you fall ill.

If users do not find an answer to their specific questions, they have the option of submitting them to a team of FAS researchers and a crowdsourced network of vetted science experts led by the National Science Policy Network. Users can expect an answer within an hour, although that timeframe is expected to shorten as the network increases in size. Every answer is reviewed to ensure accuracy and timeliness, then added to the knowledge base for the benefit of others….(More)”.

The world after coronavirus

Yuval Noah Harari at the Financial Times: “Humankind is now facing a global crisis. Perhaps the biggest crisis of our generation. The decisions people and governments take in the next few weeks will probably shape the world for years to come. They will shape not just our healthcare systems but also our economy, politics and culture. We must act quickly and decisively. We should also take into account the long-term consequences of our actions.

When choosing between alternatives, we should ask ourselves not only how to overcome the immediate threat, but also what kind of world we will inhabit once the storm passes. Yes, the storm will pass, humankind will survive, most of us will still be alive — but we will inhabit a different world.  Many short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of life. That is the nature of emergencies. They fast-forward historical processes.

Decisions that in normal times could take years of deliberation are passed in a matter of hours. Immature and even dangerous technologies are pressed into service, because the risks of doing nothing are bigger. Entire countries serve as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments. What happens when everybody works from home and communicates only at a distance? What happens when entire schools and universities go online? In normal times, governments, businesses and educational boards would never agree to conduct such experiments. But these aren’t normal times. 

In this time of crisis, we face two particularly important choices. The first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity. 

Under-the-skin surveillance

In order to stop the epidemic, entire populations need to comply with certain guidelines. There are two main ways of achieving this. One method is for the government to monitor people, and punish those who break the rules. Today, for the first time in human history, technology makes it possible to monitor everyone all the time. Fifty years ago, the KGB couldn’t follow 240m Soviet citizens 24 hours a day, nor could the KGB hope to effectively process all the information gathered. The KGB relied on human agents and analysts, and it just couldn’t place a human agent to follow every citizen. But now governments can rely on ubiquitous sensors and powerful algorithms instead of flesh-and-blood spooks. 

In their battle against the coronavirus epidemic several governments have already deployed the new surveillance tools. The most notable case is China. By closely monitoring people’s smartphones, making use of hundreds of millions of face-recognising cameras, and obliging people to check and report their body temperature and medical condition, the Chinese authorities can not only quickly identify suspected coronavirus carriers, but also track their movements and identify anyone they came into contact with. A range of mobile apps warn citizens about their proximity to infected patients…

If I could track my own medical condition 24 hours a day, I would learn not only whether I have become a health hazard to other people, but also which habits contribute to my health. And if I could access and analyse reliable statistics on the spread of coronavirus, I would be able to judge whether the government is telling me the truth and whether it is adopting the right policies to combat the epidemic. Whenever people talk about surveillance, remember that the same surveillance technology can usually be used not only by governments to monitor individuals — but also by individuals to monitor governments. 

The coronavirus epidemic is thus a major test of citizenship….(More)”.

Statement of the EDPB Chair on the processing of personal data in the context of the COVID-19 outbreak

European Data Protection Board: “Governments, public and private organisations throughout Europe are taking measures to contain and mitigate COVID-19. This can involve the processing of different types of personal data.  

Andrea Jelinek, Chair of the European Data Protection Board (EDPB), said: “Data protection rules (such as GDPR) do not hinder measures taken in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. However, I would like to underline that, even in these exceptional times, the data controller must ensure the protection of the personal data of the data subjects. Therefore, a number of considerations should be taken into account to guarantee the lawful processing of personal data.”

The GDPR is a broad legislation and also provides for the rules to apply to the processing of personal data in a context such as the one relating to COVID-19. Indeed, the GDPR provides for the legal grounds to enable the employers and the competent public health authorities to process personal data in the context of epidemics, without the need to obtain the consent of the data subject. This applies for instance when the processing of personal data is necessary for the employers for reasons of public interest in the area of public health or to protect vital interests (Art. 6 and 9 of the GDPR) or to comply with another legal obligation.

For the processing of electronic communication data, such as mobile location data, additional rules apply. The national laws implementing the ePrivacy Directive provide for the principle that the location data can only be used by the operator when they are made anonymous, or with the consent of the individuals. The public authorities should first aim for the processing of location data in an anonymous way (i.e. processing data aggregated in a way that it cannot be reversed to personal data). This could enable to generate reports on the concentration of mobile devices at a certain location (“cartography”).  

When it is not possible to only process anonymous data, Art. 15 of the ePrivacy Directive enables the member states to introduce legislative measures pursuing national security and public security *. This emergency legislation is possible under the condition that it constitutes a necessary, appropriate and proportionate measure within a democratic society. If such measures are introduced, a Member State is obliged to put in place adequate safeguards, such as granting individuals the right to judicial remedy….(More)”.

International Humanitarian and Development Aid and Big Data Governance

Chapter by Andrej Zwitter: “Modern technology and innovations constantly transform the world. This also applies to humanitarian action and development aid, for example: humanitarian drones, crowd sourcing of information, or the utility of Big Data in crisis analytics and humanitarian intelligence. The acceleration of modernization in these adjacent fields can in part be attributed to new partnerships between aid agencies and new private stakeholders that increasingly become active, such as individual crisis mappers, mobile telecommunication companies, or technological SMEs.

These partnerships, however, must be described as simultaneously beneficial as well as problematic. Many private actors do not subscribe to the humanitarian principles (humanity, impartiality, independence, and neutrality), which govern UN and NGO operations, or are not even aware of them. Their interests are not solely humanitarian, but may include entrepreneurial agendas. The unregulated use of data in humanitarian intelligence has already caused negative consequences such as the exposure of sensitive data about aid agencies and of victims of disasters.

This chapter investigates the emergent governance trends around data innovation in the humanitarian and development field. It takes a look at the ways in which the field tries to regulate itself and the utility of the humanitarian principles for Big Data analytics and data-driven innovation. It will argue that it is crucially necessary to formulate principles for data governance in the humanitarian context in order to ensure the safeguarding of beneficiaries that are particularly vulnerable. In order to do that, the chapter proposes to reinterpret the humanitarian principles to accommodate the new reality of datafication of different aspects of society…(More)”.