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The recently announced World Food Programme (WFP) partnership with Palantir, IRIN’s article about it, reactions from the Responsible Data Forum, and WFP’s resulting statement inspired us to pull together a Technology Salon in New York City to discuss the ethics of humanitarian data sharing.

(See this crowdsourced document for more background on the WFP-Palantir partnership and resources for thinking about the ethics of data sharing. Also here is an overview of WFP’s SCOPE system for beneficiary identification, management and tracking.)

Our lead discussants were: Laura Walker McDonald, Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation; Mark Latonero, Research Lead for Data & Human Rights, Data & Society; Nathaniel Raymond, Jackson Institute of Global Affairs, Yale University; and Kareem Elbayar, Partnerships Manager, Centre for Humanitarian Data at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. We were graciously hosted by The Gov Lab.

What are the concerns about humanitarian data sharing and with Palantir?

Some of the initial concerns expressed by Salon participants about humanitarian data sharing included: data privacy and the permanence of data; biases in data leading to unwarranted conclusions and assumptions; loss of stakeholder engagement when humanitarians move to big data and techno-centric approaches; low awareness and poor practices across humanitarian organizations on data privacy and security; tensions between security of data and utility of data; validity and reliability of data; lack of clarity about the true purposes of data sharing; the practice of ‘ethics outsourcing’ (testing things in places where there is a perceived ‘lower ethical standard;’ and less accountability); use of humanitarian data to target and harm aid recipients; disempowerment and extractive approaches to data; lack of checks and balances for safe and productive data sharing; difficulty of securing meaningful consent; and the links between data and surveillance by malicious actors, governments, private sector, military or intelligence agencies.

Palantir’s relationships and work with police, the CIA, ICE, the NSA, the US military and wider intelligence community are one of the main concerns about this partnership. Some ask whether a company can legitimately serve philanthropy, development, social, human rights and humanitarian sectors while also serving the military and intelligence communities and whether it is ethical for those in the former to engage in partnerships with companies who serve the latter. Others ask if WFP and others who partner with Palantir are fully aware of the company’s background, and if so, why these partnerships have been able to pass through due diligence processes. Yet others wonder if a company like Palantir can be trusted, given its background.

Below is a summary of the key points of the discussion, which happened on February 28, 2019. (Technology Salons are Chatham House affairs, so I have not attributed quotes in this post.)

Why were we surprised by this partnership/type of partnership?

Our first discussant asked why this partnership was a surprise to many. He emphasized the importance of stakeholder conversations, transparency, and wider engagement in the lead-up to these kinds of partnerships. “And I don’t mean in order to warm critics up to the idea, but rather to create a safe and trusted ecosystem. Feedback and accountability are really key to this.” He also highlighted that humanitarian organizations are not experts in advanced technologies and that it’s normal for them to bring in experts in areas that are not their forte. However, we need to remember that tech companies are not experts in humanitarian work and put the proper checks and balances in place. Bringing in a range of multidisciplinary expertise and distributed intelligence is necessary in a complex information environment. One possible approach is creating technology advisory boards. Another way to ensure more transparency and accountability is to conduct a human rights impact assessment. The next year will be a major test for these kinds of partnerships, given the growing concerns, he said.

One Salon participant said that the fact that the humanitarian sector engages in partnerships with the private sector is not a surprise at all, as the sector has worked through Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) for several years now and they can bring huge value. The surprise is that WFP chose Palantir as the partner. “They are not the only option, so why pick them?” Another person shared that the WFP partnership went through a full legal review, and so it was not a surprise to everyone. However, communication around the partnership was not well planned or thought out and the process was not transparent and open. Others pointed out that although a legal review covers some bases, it does not assess the potential negative social impact or risk to ‘beneficiaries.’ For some the biggest surprise was WFP’s own surprise at the pushback on this particular partnership and its unsatisfactory reaction to the concerns raised about it. The response from responsible data advocates and the press attention to the WFP-Palantir partnership might be a turning point for the sector to encourage more awareness of the risks in working with certain types of companies. As many noted, this is not only a problem for WFP, it’s something that plagues the wider sector and needs to be addressed urgently.

Organizations need think beyond reputational harm and consider harm to beneficiaries

“We spend too much time focusing on avoiding risk to institutions and too little time thinking about how to mitigate risk to beneficiaries,” said one person. WFP, for example, has some of the best policies and procedures out there, yet this partnership still passed their internal test. That is a scary thought, because it implies that other agencies who have weaker policies might be agreeing to even more risky partnerships. Are these policies and risk assessments, then, covering all the different types of risk that need consideration? Many at the Salon felt that due diligence and partnership policies focus almost exclusively on organizational and reputational risk with very little attention to the risk that vulnerable populations might face. It’s not just a question of having policies, however, said one person. “Look at the Oxfam Safeguarding situation. Oxfam had some of the best safeguarding policies, yet there were egregious violations that were not addressed by having a policy. It’s a question of power and how decisions get made, and where decision-making power lies and who is involved and listened to.” (Note: one person contacted me pre-Salon to say that there was pushback by WFP country-level representatives about the Palantir partnership, but that it still went ahead. This brings up the same issue of decision-making power, and who has power to decide on these partnerships and why are voices from the frontlines not being heard? Additionally, are those whose data is captured and put into these large data systems ever consulted about what they think?)

Organizations need to assess wider implications, risks, and unintended negative consequences

It’s not only WFP that is putting information into SCOPE, said one person. “Food insecure people have no choice about whether to provide their data if they wish to receive food.” Thus, the question of truly ‘informed consent’ arises. Implementing partners don’t have a lot of choice either, he said. “Implementing agencies are forced to input beneficiary data into SCOPE if they want to work in particular zones or countries.” This means that WFP’s systems and partnerships have an impact on the entire humanitarian community, and therefore these partnerships and systems need to be more broadly consulted about with the wider sector.  The optical and reputational impact to organizations aside from WFP is significant, as they may disagree with the Palantir partnership but they are now associated with it by default. This type of harm goes beyond the fear of exploitation of the data in WFP’s “data lake.” It becomes a risk to personnel on the ground who are then seen as collaborating with a CIA contractor by putting beneficiary biometric data into SCOPE. This can also deter food-insecure people from accessing benefits. Additionally, association with CIA or US military has led to humanitarian agencies and workers being targeted, attacked and killed. That is all in addition to the question on whether these kinds of partnerships violate humanitarian principles, such as that of impartiality.

“It’s critical to understand the role of rumor in humanitarian contexts,” said one discussant. “Affected populations are trying to figure out what is happening and there is often a lot of rumor going around.”  So, if Palantir has a reputation for giving data to the CIA, people may hear about that and then be afraid to access services for fear of having their data given to the CIA. This can lead to retaliation against humanitarians and humanitarian organizations and escalate their risk of operating. Risk assessments need to go beyond the typical areas of reputation or financial risk. We also need to think about how these partnerships can affect humanitarian access and community trust and how rumors can have wide ripple effects.

The whole sector needs to put better due diligence systems in place. As it is now, noted one person, often it’s someone who doesn’t know much about data who writes up a short summary of the partnership, and there is limited review. “We’ve been struggling for 10 years to get our offices to use data. Now we’re in a situation where they’re just picking up a bunch of data and handing it over to private companies.”

UN immunities and privileges lead to a lack of accountability

The fact that UN agencies have immunities and privileges, means that laws such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) do not apply to them and they are left to self-regulate. Additionally, there is no common agreement among UN Agencies on how GDPR applies, and each UN agency interprets it on their own. As one person noted “There is a troubling sense of exceptionalism and lack of accountability in some of these agencies because ‘a beneficiary cannot take me to court.’” An interesting point, however, is that while UN agencies are immune, those contracted as their data processors are not immune — so data processors beware!

Demographically Identifiable Information (DII) can lead to serious group harm

The WFP has stated that personally identifiable information (PII) is not technically accessible to Palantir via this partnership. However, some at the Salon consider that the WFP failed in their statement about the partnership when they used the absence of PII as a defense. Demographically Identifiable Information (DII) and the activity patterns that are visible even in commodity data can be extrapolated as training data for future data modeling. “This is prospective modeling of action-based intelligence patterns as part of multiple screeners of intel,” said one discussant. He went on to explain that privacy discussions have moved from centering on property rights in the 19th Century, to individual rights in the 20th Century, to group rights in the 21st Century. We can use existing laws to emphasize protection of groups and to highlight the risks of DII leading to group harm, he said, as there are well-known cases that exemplify the notion of group harms (Plessy v Ferguson, Brown v Board of Education). Even in logistics data (which is the kind of data that WFP says Palantir will access) that contains no PII, it’s very simple to identify groups. “I can look at supply chain information and tell you where there are lactating mothers. If you don’t want refugees to give birth in the country they have arrived to, this information can be used for targeting.”

Many in the sector do not trust a company like Palantir

Though it is not clear who was in the room when WFP made the decision to partner with Palantir, the overall sector has concerns that the people making these decisions are not assessing partnerships from all angles: legal, privacy, programmatic, ethical, data use and management, social, protection, etc. Technologists and humanitarian practitioners are often not included in making these decisions, said one participant. “It’s the people with MBAs. They trust a tech company to say ‘this is secure’ but they don’t have the expertise to actually know that. Not to mention that yes, something might be secure, but maybe it’s not ethical. Senior people are signing off without having a full view. We need a range of skill sets reviewing these kinds of partnerships and investments.”

Another question arises: What happens when there is scope creep? Is Palantir in essence “grooming” the sector to then abuse data it accesses once it’s trusted and “allowed in”? Others pointed out that the grooming has already happened and Palantir is already on the inside. They first began partnering with the sector via the Clinton Global Initiative meetings back in 2013 and they are very active at World Economic Forum meetings. “This is not something coming out of the Trump administration, it was happening long before that,” said one person, and the company is already “in.” Another person said “Palantir lobbied their way into this, and they’ve gotten past the point of reputational challenge.” Palantir has approached many humanitarian agencies, including all the UN agencies, added a third person. Now that they have secured this contract with the WFP, the door to future work with a lot of other agencies is open and this is very concerning.

We’re in a new political economy: data brokerage.

“Humanitarians have lost their Geneva values and embraced Silicon Valley values” said one discussant. They are becoming data brokers within a colonial data paradigm. “We are making decisions in hierarchies of power, often extralegally,” he said. “We make decisions about other people’s data without their involvement, and we need to be asking: is it humanitarian to commodify for monetary or reasons of value the data of beneficiaries? When is it ethical to trade beneficiary data for something of value?” Another raised the issue of incentives. “Where are the incentives stacked? There is no incentive to treat beneficiaries better. All the incentives are on efficiency and scale and attracting donors.”

Can this example push the wider sector to do better?

One participant hoped there could be a net gain out of the WFP-Palantir case. “It’s a bad situation. But it’s a reckoning for the whole space. Most agencies don’t have these checks and balances in place. But people are waking up to it in a serious way. There’s an opportunity to step into. It’s hard inside of bureaucratic organizations, but it’s definitely an opportunity to start doing better.”

Another said that we need more transparency across the sector on these partnerships. “What is our process for evaluating something like this? Let’s just be transparent. We need to get these data partnership policies into the open. WFP could have simply said ‘here is our process’. But they didn’t. We should be working with an open and transparent model.” Overall, there is a serious lack of clarity on what data sharing agreements look like across the sector. One person attending the Salon said that their organization has been trying to understand current practice with regard to data sharing, and it’s been very difficult to get any examples, even redacted ones.

What needs to happen? 

In closing we discussed what needs to happen next. One person noted that in her research on Responsible Data, she found a total lack of capacity in terms of technology at non-profit organizations. “It’s the Economist Syndrome. Someone’s boss reads something on the bus and decides they need a blockchain,” someone quipped. In terms of responsible data approaches, research shows that organizations are completely overwhelmed. “They are keeping silent about their low capacity out of fear they will face consequences,” said one person, “and with GDPR, even more so”. At the wider level, we are still focusing on PII as the issue without considering DII and group rights, and this is a mistake, said another.

Organizations have very low capacity, and we are siloed. “Program officers do not have tech capacity. Tech people are kept in offices or ‘labs’ on their own and there is not a lot of porosity. We need protection advisors, lawyers, digital safety advisors, data protection officers, information management specialists, IT all around the table for this,” noted one discussant. Also, she said, though we do need principles and standards, it’s important that organizations adapt these so that they are their own principles and standards. “We need to adapt these boiler plate standards to our organizations. This has to happen based on our own organizational values.  Not everyone is rights-based, not everyone is humanitarian.” So organizations need to take the time to review and adapt standards, policies and procedures to their own vision and mission and to their own situations, contexts and operations and to generate awareness and buy-in. In conclusion, she said, “if you are not being responsible with data, you are already violating your existing values and codes. Responsible Data is already in your values, it’s a question of living it.”

Technology Salons happen in several cities around the world. If you’d like to join a discussion, sign up here. If you’d like to host a Salon, suggest a topic, or support us to keep doing Salons in NYC please get in touch with me! 🙂

 

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For our Tuesday, July 27th Salon, we discussed partnerships and interoperability in global health systems. The room housed a wide range of perspectives, from small to large non-governmental organizations to donors and funders to software developers to designers to healthcare professionals to students. Our lead discussants were Josh Nesbit, CEO at Medic Mobile; Jonathan McKay, Global Head of Partnerships and Director of the US Office of Praekelt.org; and Tiffany Lentz, Managing Director, Office of Social Change Initiatives at ThoughtWorks

We started by hearing from our discussants on why they had decided to tackle issues in the area of health. Reasons were primarily because health systems were excluding people from care and organizations wanted to find a way to make healthcare inclusive. As one discussant put it, “utilitarianism has infected global health. A lack of moral imagination is the top problem we’re facing.”

Other challenges include requests for small scale pilots and customization/ bespoke applications, lack of funding and extensive requirements for grant applications, and a disconnect between what is needed on the ground and what donors want to fund. “The amount of documentation to get a grant is ridiculous, and then the system that is requested to be built is not even the system that needs to be made,” commented one person. Another challenge is that everyone is under constant pressure to demonstrate that they are being innovative. [Sidenote: I’m reminded of this post from 2010….] “They want things that are not necessarily in the best interest of the project, but that are seen to be innovations. Funders are often dragged along by that,” noted another person.

The conversation most often touched on the unfulfilled potential of having a working ecosystem and a common infrastructure for health data as well as the problems and challenges that will most probably arise when trying to develop these.

“There are so many uncoordinated pilot projects in different districts, all doing different things,” said one person. “Governments are doing what they can, but they don’t have the funds,” added another, “and that’s why there are so many small pilots happening everywhere.” One company noted that it had started developing a platform for SMS but abandoned it in favor of working with an existing platform instead. “Can we create standards and protocols to tie some of this work together? There isn’t a common infrastructure that we can build on,” was the complaint. “We seem to always start from scratch. I hope donors and organizations get smart about applying pressure in the right areas. We need an infrastructure that allows us to build on it and do the work!” On the other hand, someone warned of the risks of pushing everyone to “jump on a mediocre software or platform just because we are told to by a large agency or donor.”

The benefits of collaboration and partnership are apparent: increased access to important information, more cooperation, less duplication, the ability to build on existing knowledge, and so on. However, though desirable, partnerships and interoperability is not easy to establish. “Is it too early for meaningful partnerships in mobile health? I was wondering if I could say that…” said one person. “I’m not even sure I’m actually comfortable saying it…. But if you’re providing essential basic services, collecting sensitive medical data from patients, there should be some kind of infrastructure apart from private sector services, shouldn’t there?” The question is who should own this type of a mediator platform: governments? MNOs?

Beyond this, there are several issues related to control and ownership. Who would own the data? Is there a way to get to a point where the data would be owned by the patients and demonetized? If the common system is run by the private sector, there should be protections surrounding the patients’ sensitive information. Perhaps this should be a government-run system. Should it be open source?

Open source has its own challenges. “Well… yes. We’ve practiced ‘hopensource’,” said one person (to widespread chuckles).

Another explained that the way we’ve designed information systems has held back shifts in health systems. “When we’re comparing notes and how we are designing products, we need to be out ahead of the health systems and financing shifts. We need to focus on people-centered care. We need to gather information about a person over time and place. About the teams who are caring for them. Many governments we’re working with are powerless and moneyless. But even small organizations can do something. When we show up and treat a government as a systems owner that is responsible to deliver health care to their citizens, then we start to think about them as a partner, and they begin to think about how they could support their health systems.”

One potential model is to design a platform or system such that it can eventually be handed off to a government. This, of course, isn’t a simple idea in execution. Governments can be limited by their internal expertise. The personnel that a government has at the time of the handoff won’t necessarily be there years or months later. So while the handoff itself may be successful in the short term, there’s no firm guarantee that the system will be continually operational in the future. Additionally, governments may not be equipped with the knowledge to make the best decisions about software systems they purchase. Governments’ negotiating capacity must be expanded if they are to successfully run an interoperable system. “But if we can bring in a snazzy system that’s already interoperable, it may be more successful,” said one person.

Having a common data infrastructure is crucial. However, we must also spend some time thinking about what the data itself should look like. Can it be standardized? How can we ensure that it is legible to anyone with access to it?

These are only some of the relevant political issues, and at a more material level, one cannot ignore the technical challenges of maintaining a national scale system. For example, “just getting a successful outbound dialing rate is hard!” said one person. “If you are running servers in Nigeria it just won’t always be up! I think human centered design is important. But there is also a huge problem simply with making these things work at scale. The hardcore technical challenges are real. We can help governments to filter through some of the potential options. Like, can a system demonstrate that it can really operate at massive scale?” Another person highlighted that “it’s often non-profits who are helping to strengthen the capacity of governments to make better decisions. They don’t have money for large-scale systems and often don’t know how to judge what’s good or to be a strong negotiator. They are really in a bind.”

This is not to mention that “the computers have plastic over them half the time. Electricity, computers, literacy, there are all these issues. And the TelCo infrastructure! We have layers of capacity gaps to address,” said one person.

There are also donors to consider. They may come into a project with unrealistic expectations of what is normal and what can be accomplished. There is a delicate balance to be struck between inspiring the donors to take up the project and managing expectations so that they are not disappointed.” One strategy is to “start hopeful and steadily temper expectations.” This is true also with other kinds of partnerships. “Building trust with organizations so that when things do go bad, you can try to manage it is crucial. Often it seems like you don’t want to be too real in the first conversation. I think, ‘if I lay this on them at the start it can be too real and feel overwhelming.…'” Others recommended setting expectations about how everyone together is performing. “It’s more like, ‘together we are going to be looking at this, and we’ll be seeing together how we are going to work and perform together.”

Creating an interoperable data system is costly and time-consuming, oftentimes more so than donors and other stakeholders imagine, but there are real benefits. Any step in the direction of interoperability must deal with challenges like those considered in this discussion. Problems abound. Solutions will be harder to come by, but not impossible.

So, what would practitioners like to see? “I would like to see one country that provides an incredible case study showing what good partnership and collaboration looks like with different partners working at different levels and having a massive impact and improved outcomes. Maybe in Uganda,” said one person. “I hope we see more of us rally around supporting and helping governments to be the system owners. We could focus on a metric or shared cause – I hope in the near future we have a view into the equity measure and not just the vast numbers. I’d love to see us use health equity as the rallying point,” added another. From a different angle, one person felt that “from a for-profit, we could see it differently. We could take on a country, a clinic or something as our own project. What if we could sponsor a government’s health care system?”

A participant summed the Salon up nicely: “I’d like to make a flip-side comment. I want to express gratitude to all the folks here as discussants. This is one of the most unforgiving and difficult environments to work in. It’ SO difficult. You have to be an organization super hero. We’re among peers and feel it as normal to talk about challenges, but you’re really all contributing so much!”

Salons are run under Chatham House Rule so not attribution has been made in this post. If you’d like to attend a future Salon discussion, join the list at Technology Salon.

 

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