Responsible Data reflection stories

Responsible Data Forum: “Through the various Responsible Data Forum events over the past couple of years, we’ve heard many anecdotes of responsible data challenges faced by people or organizations. These include potentially harmful data management practices, situations where people have experienced gut feelings that there is potential for harm, or workarounds that people have created to avoid those situations.

But we feel that trading in these “war stories” isn’t the most useful way for us to learn from these experiences as acommunity. Instead, we have worked with our communities to build a set of Reflection Stories: a structured, well-researched knowledge base on the unforeseen challenges and (sometimes) negative consequences of usingtechnology and data for social change.

We hope that this can offer opportunities for reflection and learning, as well as helping to develop innovativestrategies for engaging with technology and data in new and responsible ways….

What we learned from the stories

New spaces, new challenges

Moving into new digital spaces is bringing new challenges, and social media is one such space where these challengesare proving very difficult to navigate. This seems to stem from a number of key points:

  • organisations with low levels of technical literacy and experience in tech- or data-driven projects, deciding toengage suddenly with a certain tool or technology without realising what this entails. For some, this seems to stemfrom funders being more willing to support ‘innovative’ tech projects.
  • organisations wishing to engage more with social media while not being aware of more nuanced understandingsof public/private spaces online, and how different communities engage with social media. (see story #2)
    unpredictability and different levels of visibility: due to how privacy settings on Twitter are currently set, visibilityof users can be increased hugely by the actions of others – and once that happens, a user actually has very littleagency to change or reverse that. Sadly, being more visible on, for example, Twitter disproportionately affectswomen and minority groups in a negative way – so while ‘signal boosting’ to raise someone’s profile might be well-meant, the consequences are hard to predict, and almost impossible to reverse manually. (see story #4)
  • consent: related to the above point, “giving consent” can mean many different things when it comes to digitalspaces, especially if the person in question has little experience or understanding of using the technology inquestion (see stories #4 and #5).

Grey areas of responsible data

In almost all of the cases we looked at, very few decisions were concretely “right” or “wrong”. There are many, manygrey areas here, which need to be addressed on a case by case basis. In some cases, people involved really did thinkthrough their actions, and approached their problems thoughtfully and responsibly – but consequences they had notimagined, happened (see story #8).

Additionally, given the quickly moving nature of the space, challenges can arise that simply would not have beenpossible at the start.

….Despite the very varying settings of the stories collected, the shared mitigation strategies indicate that there areindeed a few key principles that can be kept in mind throughout the development of a new tech- or data-drivenproject.

The most stark of these – and one key aspect that is underlying many of these challenges – is a fundamental lack of technical literacy among advocacy organisations. This affects the way they interact with technical partners, the decisions they make around the project, the level to which they can have meaningful input, and more. Perhaps more crucially, it also affects the ability to know what to ask for help about – ie, to ‘know the unknowns’.

Building an organisation’s technical literacy might not mean being able to answer all technical questions in-house, but rather knowing what to ask and what to expect in an answer, from others. For advocacy organisations who don’t (yet)have this, it becomes all too easy to outsource not just the actual technical work but the contextual decisions too, which should be a collaborative process, benefiting from both sets of expertise.

There seems to be a lot of scope to expand this set of stories both in terms of collecting more from other advocacy organisations, and into other sectors, too. Ultimately, we hope that sharing our collective intelligence around lessonslearned from responsible data challenges faced in projects, will contribute to a greater understanding for all of us….Read all the stories here