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Posts Tagged ‘open knowledge’

This post was originally published on the Open Knowledge Foundation blog

A core theme that the Open Development track covered at September’s Open Knowledge Conference was Ethics and Risk in Open Development. There were more questions than answers in the discussions, summarized below, and the Open Development working group plans to further examine these issues over the coming year.

Informed consent and opting in or out

Ethics around ‘opt in’ and ‘opt out’ when working with people in communities with fewer resources, lower connectivity, and/or less of an understanding about privacy and data are tricky. Yet project implementers have a responsibility to work to the best of their ability to ensure that participants understand what will happen with their data in general, and what might happen if it is shared openly.

There are some concerns around how these decisions are currently being made and by whom. Can an NGO make the decision to share or open data from/about program participants? Is it OK for an NGO to share ‘beneficiary’ data with the private sector in return for funding to help make a program ‘sustainable’? What liabilities might donors or program implementers face in the future as these issues develop?

Issues related to private vs. public good need further discussion, and there is no one right answer because concepts and definitions of ‘private’ and ‘public’ data change according to context and geography.

Informed participation, informed risk-taking

The ‘do no harm’ principle is applicable in emergency and conflict situations, but is it realistic to apply it to activism? There is concern that organizations implementing programs that rely on newer ICTs and open data are not ensuring that activists have enough information to make an informed choice about their involvement. At the same time, assuming that activists don’t know enough to decide for themselves can come across as paternalistic.

As one participant at OK Con commented, “human rights and accountability work are about changing power relations. Those threatened by power shifts are likely to respond with violence and intimidation. If you are trying to avoid all harm, you will probably not have any impact.” There is also the concept of transformative change: “things get worse before they get better. How do you include that in your prediction of what risks may be involved? There also may be a perception gap in terms of what different people consider harm to be. Whose opinion counts and are we listening? Are the right people involved in the conversations about this?”

A key point is that whomever assumes the risk needs to be involved in assessing that potential risk and deciding what the actions should be — but people also need to be fully informed. With new tools coming into play all the time, can people be truly ‘informed’ and are outsiders who come in with new technologies doing a good enough job of facilitating discussions about possible implications and risk with those who will face the consequences? Are community members and activists themselves included in risk analysis, assumption testing, threat modeling and risk mitigation work? Is there a way to predict the likelihood of harm? For example, can we determine whether releasing ‘x’ data will likely lead to ‘y’ harm happening? How can participants, practitioners and program designers get better at identifying and mitigating risks?

When things get scary…

Even when risk analysis is conducted, it is impossible to predict or foresee every possible way that a program can go wrong during implementation. Then the question becomes what to do when you are in the middle of something that is putting people at risk or leading to extremely negative unintended consequences. Who can you call for help? What do you do when there is no mitigation possible and you need to pull the plug on an effort? Who decides that you’ve reached that point? This is not an issue that exclusively affects programs that use open data, but open data may create new risks with which practitioners, participants and activists have less experience, thus the need to examine it more closely.

Participants felt that there is not enough honest discussion on this aspect. There is a pop culture of ‘admitting failure’ but admitting harm is different because there is a higher sense of liability and distress. “When I’m really scared shitless about what is happening in a project, what do I do?” asked one participant at the OK Con discussion sessions. “When I realize that opening data up has generated a huge potential risk to people who are already vulnerable, where do I go for help?” We tend to share our “cute” failures, not our really dismal ones.

Academia has done some work around research ethics, informed consent, human subject research and use of Internal Review Boards (IRBs). What aspects of this can or should be applied to mobile data gathering, crowdsourcing, open data work and the like? What about when citizens are their own source of information and they voluntarily share data without a clear understanding of what happens to the data, or what the possible implications are?

Do we need to think about updating and modernizing the concept of IRBs? A major issue is that many people who are conducting these kinds of data collection and sharing activities using new ICTs are unaware of research ethics and IRBs and don’t consider what they are doing to be ‘research’. How can we broaden this discussion and engage those who may not be aware of the need to integrate informed consent, risk analysis and privacy awareness into their approaches?

The elephant in the room

Despite our good intentions to do better planning and risk management, one big problem is donors, according to some of the OK Con participants.  Do donors require enough risk assessment and mitigation planning in their program proposal designs? Do they allow organizations enough time to develop a well-thought-out and participatory Theory of Change along with a rigorous risk assessment together with program participants? Are funding recipients required to report back on risks and how they played out? As one person put it, “talk about failure is currently more like a ‘cult of failure’ and there is no real learning from it. Systematically we have to report up the chain on money and results and all the good things happening. and no one up at the top really wants to know about the bad things. The most interesting learning doesn’t get back to the donors or permeate across practitioners. We never talk about all the work-arounds and backdoor negotiations that make development work happen. This is a serious systemic issue.”

Greater transparency can actually be a deterrent to talking about some of these complexities, because “the last thing donors want is more complexity as it raises difficult questions.”

Reporting upwards into government representatives in Parliament or Congress leads to continued aversion to any failures or ‘bad news’. Though funding recipients are urged to be innovative, they still need to hit numeric targets so that the international aid budget can be defended in government spaces. Thus, the message is mixed: “Make sure you are learning and recognizing failure, but please don’t put anything too serious in the final report.” There is awareness that rigid program planning doesn’t work and that we need to be adaptive, yet we are asked to “put it all into a log frame and make sure the government aid person can defend it to their superiors.”

Where to from here?

It was suggested that monitoring and evaluation (M&E) could be used as a tool for examining some of these issues, but M&E needs to be seen as a learning component, not only an accountability one. M&E needs to feed into the choices people are making along the way and linking it in well during program design may be one way to include a more adaptive and iterative approach. M&E should force practitioners to ask themselves the right questions as they design programs and as they assess them throughout implementation. Theory of Change might help, and an ethics-based approach could be introduced as well to raise these questions about risk and privacy and ensure that they are addressed from the start of an initiative.

Practitioners have also expressed the need for additional resources to help them predict and manage possible risk: case studies, a safe space for sharing concerns during implementation, people who can help when things go pear-shaped, a menu of methodologies, a set of principles or questions to ask during program design, or even an ICT4D Implementation Hotline or a forum for questions and discussion.

These ethical issues around privacy and risk are not exclusive to Open Development. Similar issues were raised last week at the Open Government Partnership Summit sessions on whistle blowing, privacy, and safeguarding civic space, especially in light of the Snowden case. They were also raised at last year’s Technology Salon on Participatory Mapping.

A number of groups are looking more deeply into this area, including the Capture the Ocean Project, The Engine Room, IDRC’s research network, The Open Technology InstitutePrivacy InternationalGSMA, those working on “Big Data,” those in the Internet of Things space, and others.

I’m looking forward to further discussion with the Open Development working group on all of this in the coming months, and will also be putting a little time into mapping out existing initiatives and identifying gaps when it comes to these cross-cutting ethics, power, privacy and risk issues in open development and other ICT-enabled data-heavy initiatives.

Please do share information, projects, research, opinion pieces and more if you have them!

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I’m just home after a week at the Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinki (and wishing I could have cloned myself and attended each of the 13 streams!):

Here’s a video summary of some of the highlights of the Open Development stream.

Thanks so much to everyone who organized, supported, funded and attended the sessions!

Also see:

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The Open Knowledge Festival (OKFest) happens this September 17-22 in Helsinki, Finland with the theme Open Knowledge in Action. OKFest will explore the benefits of opening up knowledge and information, look at the ecosystems of organisations that can benefit from openness, and discuss the impact that more transparency can have in our societies. OKFest will run 13 key Topic Streams, one of which will focus on the topic of ‘Open Development’.

So what does ‘open knowledge’ have to do with ‘open development’? And why are people putting the word ‘open’ in front of everything these days?

Well, in addition to being a bit of a buzz word or trend, the idea behind ‘open’ is that making data and information more accessible and less restricted can enhance transparency, accountability, sharing, and collaboration. This in turn can benefit development processes. (See this post for ideas on how openness and information literacy links with participatory governance, for example.)

As Matthew Smith, a strong proponent of ‘open development,’ says, ‘openness’ is not a new concept, especially with respect to development theory. Democracy and participation represent an opening up of decision-making processes to more people. Transparency and accountability are about opening up organizations, people and processes to scrutiny and feedback.

The Internet and new ICTs such as mobile phones play a big part in the idea of ‘open’ since these platforms and tools can allow data and information to be shared more freely and widely. The concept of ‘open development’ according to Smith is enhanced by ICTs when it favors:

  • Universal over restricted access to communication tools and information. For example, access to the telecommunications infrastructure through a mobile phone or access to online [educational] content or government information.
  • Universal over restricted participation in informal and formal groups/institutions. For example, the use of SMS to mobilize political protests or new e-government implementations that provide increased transparency and new accountability arrangements.
  • Collaborative over centralized production of information, cultural content, and physical goods. For example, collaborative production of school textbooks, co-creation of government services, mesh networks.

Attitudes and behaviors also play a part in ‘openness.’ Smith notes that egalitarianism and sharing are two core concepts within ‘openness:’

  • Egalitarianism suggests an equal right to participate (access, use and collaborate).
  • Sharing is embedded in the idea of enhanced access to things that were otherwise normally restricted. This enhanced access is often motivated by the normative desire to share – whether through an obligation to contribute to the common good or to participate in a coordinated or collaborative activity.

Policies, practices and philosophies that allow data and information to be shared are also a part of ‘open’. Tim Davies explains ‘open data‘ as:

  • a set of policies and practices – open data should be accessible (online); standardized (in a common format) and reusable (open licenses)
  • a response to how tech and society is changing –  bandwidth is growing, there is more capacity to share and analyze data, people want to do things for themselves and analyze information for themselves rather than have someone do it for them.
  • a tendency towards new combinations of data – seen in ‘mash-up’ websites where people pull data from different sources, combine them with other sources, add crowd-sourced information and maps, etc.
  • a philosophy or movement – there is a push to open information and access to knowledge because information is power; there is a tendency toward greater collaboration, transparency and collaboration

The Open Development stream at OKFest will explore ways that openness can help address key development challenges, from reducing poverty to improving access to education and healthcare to mitigating climate change and managing natural resources to improving transparency, accountability and governance. One of the most important aspects of the Open Development stream will be the participation of development practitioners and thematic experts on development.

As guest program planners for the Open Development stream*, we are determined to support two-way learning about how open data and open knowledge can benefit development. We know that ICTs and new technologies cannot work in a vacuum and that open information on its own is not enough. We know that creating ICT tools and applications without basing them on real needs and local context is not helpful, useful or sustainable. We also know that traditionally excluded and marginalized populations are the ones that most often do not have access to information and new ICTs, and therefore open access to information and knowledge needs to be part of a broader and more holistic development approach that takes care to include those who are often marginalized and excluded.

Within the Open Development stream, we will offer space where those working with new technologies and those working on development issues can learn more about each other and work on joint solutions that are based on local realities and that take advantage of new opportunities that new ICTs and ‘open knowledge’ can offer.

The Open Development stream will bring together key thinkers and doers in the ‘open’ movement and the development sector via a panel discussion. We are also organizing 3 working sessions to explore:

Open development and aid flows.  Here we will look more internally at ways that greater openness in aid and development funding, activities and impact (such as the  International Aid Transparency Initiative – IATI) can help make aid more transparent, accountable, coordinated and effective. What are the new opportunities Open Data and Open Knowledge provide? How can aid and aid organizations be more open, transparent and accountable?

Open = accessible? In this session we will explore practical issues and the realities of access to and use of open information in low-resource settings. We will hear opinions and realities from development practitioners regarding a series of critical questions such as: Open for who? Open for what? Is open data enough? How can we design for accessibility in communities with lower resources and access and/or in ‘developing’ countries? Who are the new information intermediaries (aka ‘infomediaries‘)? How can we ensure that ‘open’ is not replicating existing exclusions, creating a new middle-class or benefiting already well-off sections of communities and societies?

Technologies for open development In this session we will focus on the role that ICTs and open technologies, from open source to open hardware, can play in development. We will hear ideas from development workers, technology evangelists and those who bridge the two fields.

In addition to these sessions, there will be an ‘Open Development Hack Day‘ where development practitioners can share development challenges with the OKFest community to create mobile and other ICT applications.

Events like OKFest can be overwhelming the first time you participate in them, but we are committed to making sure everyone who attends OKFest can join the discussions, contribute ideas, and learn from the wealth of keynotes, sessions and workshops. The organizers of the Open Development Stream will be on hand to support participants working in development and those who are new to the Open Knowledge World to navigate the conference via daily birds-of-a-feather gatherings, catch-up sessions and more.

In order for our stream to be a success, we need the participation of development practitioners and development workers!  The core OKFest team has made a number of travel bursaries available to help potential participants with the costs of getting to Finland, and the open development stream team are also working hard to encourage development organisations to support staff and associates from projects in the ‘global south’ to take part. If you need help securing support from your organization or funders to take part, then get in touch with the team (okfest-dev@practicalparticipation.co.uk) and we will do what we can to help.

UPDATE (July 19, 2012) – copied from the OK Fest website:

Sida, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, offers travel bursaries to a number of development practitioners and coders taking part in the Open Development topic stream. These travel bursaries will cover all reasonable flight costs and accommodation for the duration of the conference core days. A week ticket to the festival is also included. Transportation to/from airport and within Helsinki and food costs are not covered by travel bursaries. 

Who are these Bursaries For?

The Sida travel bursaries are for development practitioners and coders who can make a significant contribution to the festival, but who are not able to take part without financial aid. People who are taking an active part in the Open Development topic stream will be prioritised. We will also prioritise those who truly cannot make it to Helsinki on their own without financial help, e.g. people from developing countries

Be sure to fill out the application form here before the deadline on August 8!

For more on OKFest, watch the slideshow:

*Tim Davies from AidInfoSarah JohnsMika Valitalo and I from Plan

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