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Our Technology Salon on Digital ID (“Will Digital Identities Support or Control Us”) took place at the OSF offices on June 3 with lead discussants Savita Bailur and Emrys Schoemaker from Caribou Digital and Aiden Slavin from ID2020.

In general, Salon Participants noted the potential positives of digital ID, such as improved access to services, better service delivery, accountability, and better tracking of beneficiaries. However, they shared concerns about potential negative impacts, such as surveillance and discrimination, disregard for human rights and privacy, lack of trust in government and others running digital ID systems, harm to marginalized communities, lack of policy and ethical frameworks, complexities of digital ID systems and their associated technological requirements, and low capacity within NGOs to protect data and to deal with unintended consequences.

What do we mean by digital identity (digital ID)?

Arriving at a basic definition of digital ID is difficult due to its interrelated aspects. To begin with: What is identity? A social identity arises from a deep sense of who we are and where we come from. A person’s social identity is a critical part of how they experience an ID system. Analog ID systems have been around for a very long time and digitized versions build on them.

The three categories below (developed by Omidyar) are used by some to differentiate among types of ID systems:

  • Issued ID includes state or national issued identification like birth certificates, driver’s licenses, and systems such as India’s biometric ID system (Aadhar), built on existing analog models of ID systems and controlled by institutions.
  • De facto ID is an emerging category of ID that is formed through data trails that people leave behind when using digital devices, including credit scoring based on mobile phone use or social media use. De facto ID is somewhat outside of an individual’s control, as it is often based on analysis of passive data for which individuals have not given consent to collect or use in this way. De facto ID also includes situations where refugees are tracked via cellphone data records (CDRs). De facto ID is a new and complex way of being identified and categorized.
  • Self-asserted ID is linked to the decentralization of ID systems. It is based on the possession of forms of ID that prove who we are that we manage ourselves. A related term is self-managed ID, which recognizes that there is no ID that is “self-asserted” because our identity is relational and always relies on others recognizing us as who we are and who we believe ourselves to be.

(Also see this glossary of Digital ID definitions.)

As re-identification technologies are becoming more and more sophisticated, the line between de-facto and official, issued IDs is blurring, noted one participant. Others said they prefer using a broad umbrella term “Identity in the Digital Age” to cover the various angles.

Who is digital ID benefiting?

Salon Participants tended to think that digital ID is mainly of interest to institutions. Most IDs are developed, designed, managed, and issued by institutions. Thus the interests baked into the design of an ID system are theirs. Institutions tend to be excited about digital ID systems because they are interoperable, and helps them with beneficiary management, financial records, entry/exit across borders and the like.

This very interoperability, however, is what raises privacy, vulnerability, and data protection issues. Some of the most cutting-edge Digital ID systems are being tested on some of the most vulnerable populations in the world:  refugees in Jordan, Uganda, Lebanon, and Myanmar. These digital ID systems have created massive databases for analysis, e.g., the UNHCR’s Progress data base has 80 million records.

This brings with it a huge responsibility to protect. It also raises questions about the “one ID system to rule them all” idea. On the one hand, a single system can offer managerial control, reduce fraud, and improve tracking. Yet, as one person said, “what a horrifying prospect that an institution can have this much control! Should we instead be supporting one thousand ID systems to bloom?”

Can we trust institutions and governments to manage digital ID Systems?

One of the institutions positioning itself as the leader in Digital ID is the World Food Program (WFP). As one participant highlighted, this is an agency that has come under strong criticism for its partnership with Palantir and a lack of transparency around where data goes and who can access it. Seismic downstream effects that affect trust in the entire sector can be generated these kinds of partnerships. “This has caused a lot of angst in the sector. The WFP wants to have the single system to rule them all, whereas many of us would rather see an interoperable ecosystem.” Some organizations consider their large-scale systems to have more rigorous privacy, security, and informed consent measures than the WFP’s SCOPE system.

Trust is a critical component of a Digital ID system. The Estonian model, for example, offers visibility into which state departments are accessing a person’s data and when, which builds citizen’s trust in the system. Some Salon participants expressed concern over their own country governments running a Digital ID system. “In my country, we don’t trust institutions because we have a failed state,” said one person, “so people would never want the government to have their information in that way.” Another person said that in his country, the government is known for its corruption, and the idea that the government could manage an ID system with any kind of data integrity was laughable. “If these systems are not monitored or governed properly, they can be used to target certain segments of the population for outright repression. People do want greater financial inclusion, for example, but these ID systems can be easily weaponized and used against us.”

Fear and mistrust in digital ID systems is not universal, however. One Salon participant said that their research in Indonesia found that a digital ID was seen to be part of being a “good citizen,” even if local government was not entirely trusted. A Salon participant from China reported that in her experience, the digital ID system there has not been questioned much by citizens. Rather, it is seen as a convenient way for people to learn about new government policies and to carry out essential transactions more quickly.

What about data integrity and redress?

One big challenge with digital ID systems as they are currently managed is that there is very little attention to redress. “How do you fix errors in information? Where are the complaints mechanisms?” asked one participant. “We think of digital systems as being really flexible, but they are really hard to clean out,” said another. “You get all these faulty data crumbs that stick around. And they seem so far removed from the user. How do people get data errors fixed? No one cares about the integrity of the system. No one cares but you if your ID information is not correct. There is really very little incentive to address discrepancies and provide redress mechanisms.”

Another challenge is the integrity of the data that goes into the system. In some countries, people go back to their villages to get a birth certificate, at point at which data integrity can suffer due to faulty information or bribes, among other things. In one case, researchers spoke to a woman who changed her religion on her birth certificate thinking it would save her from discrimination when she moved to a new town. In another case, the village chief made a woman change her name to a Muslim name on her birth certificate because the village was majority Muslim.” There are power dynamics at the local level that can challenge the integrity of the ID system.

Do digital ID systems improve the lives of women and children?

There is a long-standing issue in many parts of the world with children not having a birth certificate, said one Salon discussant. “If you don’t have a legal ID, technically you don’t exist, so that first credential is really important.” As could probably be expected, however, fewer females than males have legal ID.

In a three-country research project, the men interviewed thought that women do not need ID as much as men did. However, when talking with women it was clear that they are the ones who are dealing with hospitals and schools and other institutions who require ID. The study found that In Bangladesh, when women did have ID, it was commonly held and controlled by their husbands. In one case study, a woman wanted to sign up as a cook for an online cooking service, but she needed an ID to do so. She had to ask her husband for the ID, explain what she needed it for, and get his permission in order to join the cooking service. In another, a woman wanted to provide beauty care services through an online app. She needed to produce her national ID and two photos to join up with the app and to create a bKash mobile money account. Her husband did not want her to have a bKash account, so she had to provide his account details, meaning that all of her earnings went to her husband (see more here on how ID helps women access work). In India, a woman wanted to escape her husband, so she moved from the countryside to Bangalore to work as a maid. Her in-laws retained all of her ID, and so she had to rely on her brother to set up everything for her in Bangalore.

Another Salon participant explained that in India also, micro-finance institutions had imposed a regulation that when a woman registered to be part of a project, she had to provide the name of a male member to qualify her identity. When it was time to repay the loan or if a woman missed a payment, her brother or husband would then receive a text about it. The question is how to create trust-based systems that do not reinforce patriarchal values and where individuals are clear about and have control over how information is shared?

“ID is embedded in your relationships and networks,” it was explained. “It creates a new set of dependencies and problems that we need to consider.” In order to understand the nuances in how ID and digital ID are impacting people, we need more of these micro-level stories. “What is actually happening? What does it mean when you become more identifiable?”

Is it OK to use digital ID systems for social control and social accountability? 

The Chinese social credit system, according to one Salon participant, includes a social control function. “If you have not repaid a loan, you are banned from purchasing a first-class air ticket or from checking into expensive hotels.” An application used In Nairobi called Tala also includes a social accountability function, explained another participant. “Tala is a social credit scoring app that gives small loans. You download an app with all your contacts, and it works out via algorithms if you are credit-worthy. If you are, you can get a small loan. If you stop paying your loans, however, Tala alerts everyone in your contact list. In this way, the app has digitized a social accountability function.”

The initial reaction from Salon Participants was shock, but it was pointed out that traditional Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLAs) function the same way – through social sanction. “The difference here is transparency and consent,” it was noted. “In a community you might not have choice about whether everyone knows you defaulted on your small loan. But you are aware that this is what will happen. With Tala, people didn’t realize that the app had access to their contacts and that it would alert those contacts, so consent and transparency are the issues.”

The principle of informed consent in the humanitarian space poses a constant challenge. “Does a refugee who registers with UNHCR really have any choice? If they need food and have to provide minimal information to get it, is that consent? What if they have zero digital literacy?” Researcher Helen Nissenbaum, it was noted, has written that consent is problematic and that we should not pursue it. “It’s not really about individual consent. It’s about how we set standards and ensure transparency and accountability for how an individual’s information is used,” explained one Salon participant.

These challenges with data use and consent need to be considered beyond just individual privacy, however, as another participant noted. “There is all manner of vector-based data in the WFP’s system. Other agencies don’t have this kind of disaggregated data at the village level or lower. What happens if Palantir, via the WFP, is the first company in the world to have that low level disaggregation? And what happens with the digital ID of particularly vulnerable groups of people such as refugee communities or LGBTQI communities? How could these Digital IDs be used to discriminate or harm entire groups of people? What does it mean if a particular category or tag like ‘refugee’ or ‘low income’ follows you around forever?”

One Salon participant said that in Jordanian camps, refugees would register for one thing and be surprised at how their data then automatically popped up on the screen of a different partner organization. Other participants expressed concerns about how Digital ID systems and their implications could be explained to people with less digital experience or digital literacy. “Since the GDPR came into force, people have the right to an explanation if they are subject to an automated decision,” noted one person “But what does compliance look like? How would anyone ever understand what is going on?” This will become increasingly complex as technology advances and we begin to see things like digital phenotyping being used to serve up digital content or determine our benefits.

Can we please have better standards, regulations and incentives?

A final question raised about Digital ID systems was who should be implementing and managing them: UN agencies? Governments? Private Sector? Start-ups? At the moment the ecosystem includes all sorts of actors and feels a bit “Wild Wild West” due to insufficient control and regulation. At the same time, there are fears (as noted above) about a “one system to rule them all approach.” “So,” asked one person, “what should we be doing then? Should UN agencies be building in-house expertise? Should we be partnering better with the private sector? We debate this all the time internally and we can never agree.” Questions also remain about what happens with the biometric and other data that failed start-ups or discontinued digital ID systems hold. And is it a good idea to support government-controlled ID systems in countries with corrupt or failed governments, or those who will use these systems to persecute or exercise undue control over their populations?

As one person asked, “Why are we doing this? Why are we even creating these digital ID systems?”

Although there are huge concerns about Digital ID, the flip side is that a Digital ID system could potentially offer better security for sensitive information, at least in the case of humanitarian organizations. “Most organizations currently handle massive amounts of data in Excel sheets and Google docs with zero security,” said one person. “There is PII [personally identifiable information] flowing left, right, and center.” Where donors have required better data management standards, there has been improvement, but it requires massive investment, and who will pay for it?” Sadly, donors are currently not covering these costs. As a representative from one large INGO explained, “we want to avoid the use of Excel to track this stuff. We are hoping that our digital ID system will be more secure. We see this as a very good idea if you can nail down the security aspects.”

The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is often quoted as the “gold standard,” yet implementation is complex and the GDPR is not specific enough, according to some Salon participants. Not to mention, “if you are UN, you don’t have to follow GDPR.” Many at the Salon felt that the GDPR has had very positive effects but called out the lack of incentive structures that would encourage full adoption. “No one does anything unless there is an enforcing function.” Others felt that the GDPR was too prescriptive about what to do, rather than setting limits on what not to do.

One effort to watch is the Pan Canadian Trust Foundation, mentioned as a good example of creating a functioning and decentralized ecosystem that could potentially address some of the above challenges.

The Salon ended with more questions than answers, however there is plenty of research and conversation happening about digital ID and a wide range of actors engaging with the topic. If you’d like to read more, check out this list of resources that we put together for the Salon and add any missing documents, articles, links and resources!

Salons run under Chatham House Rule, so no attribution has been made in this post. 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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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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On November 14 Technology Salon NYC met to discuss issues related to the role of film and video in development and humanitarian work. Our lead discussants were Ambika Samarthya from Praekelt.org; Lina Srivastava of CIEL, and Rebekah Stutzman, from Digital Green’s DC office.

How does film support aid and development work?

Lina proposed that there are three main reasons for using video, film, and/or immersive media (such as virtual reality or augmented reality) in humanitarian and development work:

  • Raising awareness about an issue or a brand and serving as an entry point or a way to frame further actions.
  • Community-led discussion/participatory media, where people take agency and ownership and express themselves through media.
  • Catalyzing movements themselves, where film, video, and other visual arts are used to feed social movements.

Each of the above is aimed at a different audience. “Raising awareness” often only scratches the surface of an issue and can have limited impact if done on its own without additional actions. Community-led efforts tend to go deeper and focus on the learning and impact of the process (rather than the quality of the end product) but they usually reach fewer people (thus have a higher cost per person and less scale). When using video for catalyzing moments, the goal is normally bringing people into a longer-term advocacy effort.

In all three instances, there are issues with who controls access to tools/channels, platforms, and distribution channels. Though social media has changed this to an extent, there are still gatekeepers that impact who gets to be involved and whose voice/whose story is highlighted, funders who determine which work happens, and algorithms that dictate who will see the end products.

Participants suggested additional ways that video and film are used, including:

  • Social-emotional learning, where video is shown and then discussed to expand on new ideas and habits or to encourage behavior change.
  • Personal transformation through engaging with video.

Becky shared Digital Green’s approach, which is participatory and where community members to use video to help themselves and those around them. The organization supports community members to film videos about their agricultural practices, and these are then taken to nearby communities to share and discuss. (More on Digital Green here). Video doesn’t solve anyone’s development problem all by itself, Becky emphasized. If an agricultural extensionist is no good, having a video as part of their training materials won’t solve that. “If they have a top-down attitude, don’t engage, don’t answer questions, etc., or if people are not open to changing practices, video or no video, it won’t work.”

How can we improve impact measurement?

Questions arose from Salon participants around how to measure impact of film in a project or wider effort. Overall, impact measurement in the world of film for development is weak, noted one discussant, because change takes a long time and it is hard to track. We are often encouraged to focus on the wrong things like “vanity measurements” such as “likes” and “clicks,” but these don’t speak to longer-term and deeper impact of a film and they are often inappropriate in terms of who the audience is for the actual films (E.g., are we interested in impact on the local audience who is being impacted by the problem or the external audience who is being encouraged to care about it?)

Digital Green measures behavior change based on uptake of new agriculture practices. “After the agriculture extension worker shows a video to a group, they collect data on everyone that’s there. They record the questions that people ask, the feedback about why they can’t implement a particular practice, and in that way they know who is interested in trying a new practice.” The organization sets indicators for implementing the practice. “The extension worker returns to the community to see if the family has implemented a, b, c and if not, we try to find out why. So we have iterative improvement based on feedback from the video.” The organization does post their videos on YouTube but doesn’t know if the content there is having an impact. “We don’t even try to follow it up as we feel online video is much less relevant to our audience.” An organization that is working with social-emotional learning suggested that RCTs could be done to measure which videos are more effective. Others who work on a more individual or artistic level said that the immediate feedback and reactions from viewers were a way to gauge impact.

Donors often have different understandings of useful metrics. “What is a valuable metric? How can we gather it? How much do you want us to spend gathering it?” commented one person. Larger, longer-term partners who are not one-off donors will have a better sense of how to measure impact in reasonable ways. One person who formerly worked at a large public television station noted that it was common to have long conversation about measurement, goals, and aligning to the mission. “But we didn’t go by numbers, we focused on qualitative measurement.” She highlighted the importance of having these conversations with donors and asking them “why are you partnering with us?” Being able to say no to donors is important, she said. “If you are not sharing goals and objectives you shouldn’t be working together. Is gathering these stories a benefit to the community ? If you can’t communicate your actual intent, it’s very complicated.”

The goal of participatory video is less about engaging external (international) audiences or branding and advocacy. Rather it focuses on building skills and capacities through the process of video making. Here, the impact measurement is more related to individual, and often self-reported, skills such as confidence, finding your voice, public speaking, teamwork, leadership skills, critical thinking and media literacy. The quality of video production in these cases may be low, and videos unsuitable for widespread circulation, however the process and product can be catalysts for local-level change and locally-led advocacy on themes and topics that are important to the video-makers.

Participatory video suffers from low funding levels because it doesn’t reach the kind of scale that is desired by funders, though it can often contribute to deep, personal and community-level change. Some felt that even if community-created videos were of high production quality and translated to many languages, large-scale distribution is not always feasible because they are developed in and speak to/for hyper-local contexts, thus their relevance can be limited to smaller geographic areas. Expectation management with donors can go a long way towards shifting perspectives and understanding of what constitutes “impact.”

Should we re-think compensation?

Ambika noted that there are often challenges related to incentives and compensation when filming with communities for organizational purposes (such as branding or fundraising). Organizations are usually willing to pay people for their time in places such New York City and less inclined to do so when working with a rural community that is perceived to benefit from an organization’s services and projects. Perceptions by community members that a filmmaker is financially benefiting from video work can be hard to overcome, and this means that conflict may arise during non-profit filmmaking aimed at fundraising or building a brand. Even when individuals and communities are aware that they will not be compensated directly, there is still often some type of financial expectation, noted one Salon participant, such as the purchase of local goods and products.

Working closely with gatekeepers and community leaders can help to ease these tensions. When filmmaking takes several hours or days, however, participants may be visibly stressed or concerned about household or economic chores that are falling to the side during filming, and this can be challenging to navigate, noted one media professional. Filming in virtual reality can exacerbate this problem, since VR filming is normally over-programmed and repetitive in an effort to appear realistic.

One person suggested a change in how we approach incentives. “We spent about two years in a community filming a documentary about migration. This was part of a longer research project. We were not able to compensate the community, but we were able to invest directly in some of the local businesses and to raise funds for some community projects.” It’s difficult to understand why we would not compensate people for their time and their stories, she said. “This is basically their intellectual property, and we’re stealing it. We need a sector rethink.” Another person agreed, “in the US everyone gets paid and we have rules and standards for how that happens. We should be developing these for our work elsewhere.”

Participatory video tends to have less of a challenge with compensation. “People see the videos, the videos are for their neighbors. They are sharing good agricultural or nutrition approaches with people that they already know. They sometimes love being in the videos and that is partly its own reward. Helping people around them is also an incentive,” said one person.

There were several other rabbit holes to explore in relation to film and development, so look for more Salons in 2018!

To close out the year right, join us for ICT4Drinks on December 14th at Flatiron Hall from 7-9pm. If you’re signed up for Technology Salon emails, you’ll find the invitation in your inbox!

Salons run under Chatham House Rule so no 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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Our latest Technology Salon, at the African Evaluation Association (AfrEA) Conference in Uganda on March 29th, focused on how mobile and social media platforms are being used in monitoring and evaluation processes. Our lead discussants were Jamie Arkin from Human Network International (soon to be merging with VotoMobile) who spoke about interactive voice response (IVR); John Njovu, an independent consultant working with the Ministry of National Development Planning of the Zambian government, who shared experiences with technology tools for citizen feedback to monitor budgets and support transparency and accountability; and Noel Verrinder from Genesis who talked about using WhatsApp in a youth financial education program.

Using IVR for surveys

Jamie shared how HNI deploys IVR surveys to obtain information about different initiatives or interventions from a wide public or to understand the public’s beliefs about a particular topic. These surveys come in three formats: random dialing of telephone numbers until someone picks up; asking people to call in, for example, on a radio show; or using an existing list of phone numbers. “If there is an 80% phone penetration or higher, it is equal to a normal household level survey,” she said. The organization has list of thousands of phone numbers and can segment these to create a sample. “IVR really amplifies people’s voices. We record in local language. We can ask whether the respondent is a man or a woman. People use their keypads to reply or we can record their voices providing an open response to the question.” The voice responses are later digitized into text for analysis. In order to avoid too many free voice responses, the HNI system can cut the recording off after 30 seconds or limit voice responses to the first 100 calls. Often keypad responses are most effective as people are not used to leaving voice mails.

IVR is useful in areas where there is low literacy. “In Rwanda, 80% of women cannot read a full sentence, so SMS is not a silver bullet,” Jamie noted. “Smartphones are coming, and people want them, but 95% of people in Uganda have a simple feature phone, so we cannot reach them by Facebook or WhatsApp. If you are going with those tools, you will only reach the wealthiest 5% of the population.”

In order to reduce response bias, the survey question order can be randomized. Response rates tend to be ten times higher on IVR than on SMS surveys, Jamie said, in part, because IVR is cheaper for respondents. The HNI system can provide auto-analysis for certain categories such as most popular response. CSV files can also be exported for further analysis. Additionally, the system tracks length of session, language, time of day and other meta data about the survey exercise.

Regulatory and privacy implications in most countries are unclear about IVR, and currently there are few legal restrictions against calling people for surveys. “There are opt-outs for SMS but not for IVRs, if you don’t want to participate you just hang up.” In some case, however, like Rwanda, there are certain numbers that are on “do not disturb” lists and these need to be avoided, she said.

Citizen-led budget monitoring through Facebook

John shared results of a program where citizens were encouraged to visit government infrastructure projects to track whether budget allocations had been properly done. Citizens would visit a health center or a school to inquire about these projects and then fill out a form on Facebook to share their findings. A first issue with the project was that voters were interested in availability and quality of service delivery, not in budget spending. “”I might ask what money you got, did you buy what you said, was it delivered and is it here. Yes. Fine. But the bigger question is: Are you using it? The clinic is supposed to have 1 doctor, 3 nurses and 3 lab technicians. Are they all there? Yes. But are they doing their jobs? How are they treating patients?”

Quantity and budget spend were being captured but quality of service was not addressed, which was problematic. Another challenge with the program was that people did not have a good sense of what the dollar can buy, thus it was difficult for them to assess whether budget had been spent. Additionally, in Zambia, it is not customary for citizens to question elected officials. The idea that the government owes the people something, or that citizens can walk into a government office to ask questions about budget is not a traditional one. “So people were not confident in asking question or pushing government for a response.”

The addition of technology to the program did not resolve any of these underlying issues, and on top of this, there was an apparent mismatch with the idea of using mobile phones to conduct feedback. “In Zambia it was said that everyone has a phone, so that’s why we thought we’d put in mobiles. But the thing is that the number of SIMs doesn’t equal the number of phone owners. The modern woman may have a good phone or two, but as you go down to people in the compound they don’t have even basic types of phones. In rural areas it’s even worse,” said John, “so this assumption was incorrect.” When the program began running in Zambia, there was surprise that no one was reporting. It was then realized that the actual mobile ownership statistics were not so clear.

Additionally, in Zambia only 11% of women can read a full sentence, and so there are massive literacy issues. And language is also an issue. In this case, it was assumed that Zambians all speak English, but often English is quite limited among rural populations. “You have accountability language that is related to budget tracking and people don’t understand it. Unless you are really out there working directly with people you will miss all of this.”

As a result of the evaluation of the program, the Government of Zambia is rethinking ways to assess the quality of services rather than the quantity of items delivered according to budget.

Gathering qualitative input through WhatsApp 

Genesis’ approach to incorporating WhatsApp into their monitoring and evaluation was more emergent. “We didn’t plan for it, it just happened,” said Noel Verrinder. Genesis was running a program to support technical and vocational training colleges in peri-urban and rural areas in the Northwest part of South Africa. The young people in the program are “impoverished in our context, but they have smartphones, WhatsApp and Facebook.”

Genesis had set up a WhatsApp account to communicate about program logistics, but it morphed into a space for the trainers to provide other kinds of information and respond to questions. “We started to see patterns and we could track how engaged the different youth were based on how often they engaged on WhatsApp.” In addition to the content, it was possible to gain insights into which of the participants were more engage based on their time and responses on WhatsApp.

Genesis had asked the youth to create diaries about their experiences, and eventually asked them to photograph their diaries and submit them by WhatsApp, given that it made for much easier logistics as compared to driving around to various neighborhoods to track down the diaries. “We could just ask them to provide us with all of their feedback by WhatsApp, actually, and dispense with the diaries at some point,” noted Noel.

In future, Genesis plans to incorporate WhatsApp into its monitoring efforts in a more formal way and to consider some of the privacy and consent aspects of using the application for M&E. One challenge with using WhatsApp is that the type of language used in texting is short and less expressive, so the organization will have to figure out how to understand emoticons. Additionally, it will need to ask for consent from program participants so that WhatsApp engagement can be ethically used for M&E purposes.

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Our Tech Salon on Thursday March 9th focused on the potential of Microwork to support youth economic empowerment. Joining us as lead discussants were Lis Meyers, Banyan Global; Saul Miller, Samasource; and Elena Matsui, The Rockefeller Foundation. Banyan Global recently completed a report on “The Nexus of Microwork and Impact Sourcing: Implications for Youth Employment,” supported by the Global Center for Youth Employment and RTI, who also sponsored this Salon. (Disclosure: I worked on the report with the team at Banyan)

Definitions: To frame the discussion, we provided some core definitions and an explanation of the premise of microwork and its role within Impact sourcing.

  • Business Process Outsourcing (BPO): the practice of reducing business costs by transferring portions of work to outside suppliers rather than completing it internally.
  • Online Outsourcing: Contracting a third-party provider (often in a different country) to supply products or services that are delivered and paid for via the Internet. The third party is normally an individual (e-lancing), an online community(crowdsourcing) or a firm.
  • Microwork: a segment of online outsourcing where projects or complex tasks are broken into simple tasks that can be completed in seconds or minutes. Workers require numeracy and understanding of internet and computer technology, and advanced literacy, and are usually paid small amounts of money for each completed task.
  • Impact sourcing: (also known as socially responsible outsourcing), is a business practice in which companies outsource to suppliers that employ individuals from the lowest economic segments of the population.

The premise: It is believed that if microwork is done within an impact sourcing framework, it has the potential to create jobs for disadvantaged youth and disconnected, vulnerable populations and to provide them with income opportunities to support themselves and their families. Proponents of microwork believe it can equip workers with skills and experience that can enable them to enhance their employability regardless of gender, age, socio-economic status, previous levels of employment, or physical ability. Microwork is not always intentionally aimed at vulnerable populations, however. It is only when impact sourcing is adopted as the business strategy that microwork directly benefits the most disadvantaged.

The ecosystem: The microwork industry includes a variety of stakeholders, including: clients (looking to outsource work), service providers (who facilitate the outsourcing by liaising with these clients, breaking tasks down into micro tasks, employing and managing micro workers, and providing overall management and quality control), workers (individual freelancers, groups of people, direct employees, or contractors working through a service provider on assigned micro tasks), donors/investors, government, and communities.

Models of Microwork: The report identifies three main models for microwork (as shown below); micro-distribution (e.g., Amazon Mechanical Turk or CrowdFlower); the direct model (e.g., Digital Divide Data or iMerit) and the indirect model (e.g., Samasource or Rural Shores).

 

Implementer Case Study. With the framework settled, we moved over to hearing from our first discussant, from Samasource, who provided the “implementer” point of view. Samasource has been operating since 2008. Their goal is to connect marginalized women and/or youth with dignified work through the Internet. The organization sees itself as an intermediary or a bridge and believes that work offers the best solution to the complex problem of poverty. The organization works through 3 key programs: SamaSchools, Microwork and SamaHub. At the Samaschool, potential micro workers are trained on the end-to-end process.

The organization puts potential micro workers through an assessment process (former employment history, level of education, context) to predict and select which of the potential workers will offer the highest impact. Most of Samasources’ workers were underemployed or unemployed before coming to Samasource. At Samaschool they learn digital literacy, soft skills, and the technical skills that will enable them to succeed on the job and build their resumes. Research indicates that after 4 years with Samasource, these workers show a 4-fold increase in income.

The organization has evolved over the past couple of years to opening its own delivery center in Nairobi with 650 agents (micro workers). They will also launch in Mumbai, as they’ve learned that hands-on delivery center. Samasource considers that their model (as opposed to the micro-distribution model) offers more control over recruitment and training, quality control, worker preparation, and feedback loops to help workers improve their own performance. This model also offers workers wrap-around programs and benefits like full-time employment with financial literacy training, mentorship, pensions and healthcare.

In closing, it was highlighted that Impact measurement has been a top priority for Samaource. The organization was recently audited with 8 out of 9 stars in terms of quality of impact, evidence and M&E systems. Pending is an RCT that will aim to address the counterfactual (what would happen if Samasource was not operating here?). The organization is experiencing substantial growth, doubling its revenue last year and projecting to grow another 50%. The organization achieved financial sustainability for the first time in the last quarter of 2016. Growth in the industries that require data processing and cleaning and the expansion of AI has driven this growth.

Questions on sustainability. One participant asked why the organization took 8 years to become sustainable. Samasource explained that they had been heavily subsidized by donors, and part of the journey has been to reduce subsidies and increase paid clients. A challenge is keeping costs down and competing with other service providers while still offering workers dignified work. As one of our other discussants noted, this is a point of contention with some local service providers who are less well-known to donors. Because they are not heavily subsidized, they have not been able to focus as much on the “impact” part.

For Digital Divide Data (DDD), who was also present at the Salon, the goal was not quickly getting to profit. Rather the initial objective was social. Now that the organization is maturing it has begun thinking more about profitability and sustainability. It remains a non-profit organization however.

Retention and scale. Both Samasource and DDD noted that workers are staying with them for longer periods of time (up to 4 years). This works well for individual employees (who then have stable work with benefits). It also works well for clients, because employees learn the work, meaning it will be of higher quality – and because the BPO industry has a lot of turnover, and if micro workers are stable it benefits the BPO. This, however, is less useful for achieving scale, because workers don’t move through the program quickly, opening up space for new recruits. For Samasource, the goal would be for workers to move on within 2 years. At DDD, workers complete university while working for DDD, so 4 years is the norm. Some stay for 6 years, which also impacts scaling potential. DDD is looking at a new option for workers to be credentialed and certified, potentially through a 6 month or 1-year program.

The client perspective. One perspective highlighted in the Banyan report is the client perspective. Some loved microwork and impact sourcing. Others said it was challenging. Many are interested in partnering with microwork service providers like iMerit and Daiprom because it offers more data security (you can sign an NDA with service provider, whereas you can’t with individual workers who are coming in through micro-distribution and crowdsourcing). Working with a service provider also means that you have an entity that is responsible for quality control. Experiences with service providers have varied, however, and some companies had signed on to jobs that they were unprepared to train workers on and this resulted in missed deadlines and poor quality work. Clients were clear that their top priority was business – they cared first about quality, cost, and timeliness. “Impact was the cherry on top,” as one discussant noted.

The worker perspective. An aspect missing from the study and the research is that of worker experiences. (As Banyan noted, this would require additional resources for a proper in-depth study). Do workers really seek career growth? Or are they simply looking for something flexible that can help them generate some income in a pinch or supplement their incomes during hard times. In Venezuela, for example, the number of micro workers on CrowdFlower has jumped astronomically during the current political and economic crisis, demonstrating that these type of platforms may serve as supplemental income for those in the most desperate situations. What is the difference in what different workers need?

One small study of micro workers in Kenya noted that when trying to work on their own through the micro-distribution model, they had major challenges: they were not able to collect electronic payments; they got shut out of the system because there were several youth using the same IP address and it was flagged as fraud; language and time zones affected the work was available to them; some companies only wanted workers from certain countries whom they trusted or felt could align culturally; and young women were wary of scams and sexual harassment if accessing work online, as this was their experience with work offline. Some participants wondered what the career path was for a micro worker. Did they go back to school? Did they move ahead to a higher level, higher paying job? Samasource and DDD have some evidence that micro workers in their programs do go on to more dignified, higher paying, more formal jobs, however much of this is due to the wraparound programming that they offer.

The role of government was questioned by Salon participants. Is there a perfect blend of private sector, government and an impact sourcing intermediary? Should government be using micro workers and purposefully thinking about impact sourcing? Could government help to scale microwork and impact sourcing? To date the role of government has been small, noted one discussant. Others wondered if there would be touch points through existing government employment or vocational programs, but it was pointed out that most of the current micro workers are those that have already fallen through the cracks on education and vocational training programming.

A participant outlined her previous experiences with a local municipality in India that wanted to create local employment. The contracting process excluded impact sourcing providers for inexplicable reasons. There were restrictions such as having been in operation for at least 3 years, having a certain minimal level of turnover, number of employees in the system, etc. “So while the government talked about work that needed to be digitized and wanted rural employees, and we went on a three year journey with them to make it inclusive of impact sourcers, it didn’t really work.”

What about social safeguards? One Salon participant raised concerns about the social services and legal protections in place for micro workers. In the absence of regulations, are these issues being swept under the carpet, she wondered. Another noted that minimum standards would be a positive development, but that this will be a long process, as currently there is not even a standard definition of impact sourcing, and it’s unclear what is meant by ‘impact’ and how it’s measured.

This is one area where government could and should play a role. In the past, for example, government has pushed procurement from women-owned or minority owned businesses. Something similar could happen with impact sourcing, but we need standards in order for it to happen. Not all clients who use micro workers are doing it within a framework of impact sourcing and social impact goals. For example, some clients said they were doing “impact sourcing” simply because they were sourcing work from a developing country. In reality, they were simply working with a normal BPO, and so the risk of “impact washing” is real.

Perhaps, noted another participant, the focus should be on drumming up quality clients who actually want to have an impact. “A mandated standard will mean that you lose the private sector.” Some suggested that there would be some type of a ‘certified organic’ or ‘good housekeeping’ seal of approval from a respected entity. Some felt that business were not interested and government would never move something like this. Others disagreed, saying that some large corporation really wanted to be perceived as ethical players.

Definitions proved a major challenge – for example at what point does an ‘impact worker’ cease being an impact worker and how do you count them? Should someone be labeled for life as an impact worker? There was disagreement in the room on this point.

A race to the bottom? Some wondered if microwork was just the same re-hashing of the ‘gig economy’ debate. Would it drive down prices and create extremely unstable work for the most disadvantaged populations? Were there ways that workers could organize if they were working via the micro-distribution model and didn’t even know where to find each other, and if the system was set up to make them bid against each other. It was noted that there was one platform that had been identified that aimed to support workers on Amazon Mechanical Turk, that workers there helped each other with tips on how to get contracts. However as with Uber and other gig economy players, it appeared that all the costs for learning and training were then being pawned off onto the workers themselves.

Working through the direct or indirect models can help to protect individual workers in this aspect, as Samasource, for example, does offer workers contracts and benefits and has a termination policy. The organization is also in a position to negotiate contracts that may be more beneficial to workers, such as extending a 3-week contract with lots of workers over a longer period of time with fewer workers so that income is steadier. Additionally, evaluations have shown that these jobs are pulling in workers who have never had formal jobs before, and that there is an increase in income over time for Samasource workers.

What can donors do? Our third discussant noted that the research is mixed in terms of how different kinds of microwork without any intermediary or wraparound services can actually build a career pathway. Some who are active in the space are still working hard to identify the right partnerships and build support for impact sourcing. It has been difficult to find a “best of breed” or a “gold standard” to date as the work is still evolving. “We’re interested in learning from others what partners need from donors to help scale the work that is effective.” It’s been difficult to evaluate, as she noted, because there has been quite a lot of secrecy involved, as often people do not want to share what is working for fear of losing the competitive edge.

What does the future hold? One Salon participant felt that something very bold was required, given how rapidly economies and technologies are changing. Some of the current microwork will be automated in the near future, he said. The window is closing quickly. Others disagreed, saying that the change in technology was opening up new growth in the sector and that some major players were even delaying their projections because of these rapid shifts and changes in robotics and automation. The BPO sector is fickle and moves quickly – for example voice has shifted rapidly from India to The Philippines. Samasource felt that human components were still required to supplement and train AI and DDD noted that their workers are actually training machines to take over their current jobs. It was also noted that most of the current micro workers are digital natives and a career in data entry is not highly enticing. “We need to find something that helps them feel connected to the global economy. We need to keep focused on relevant skills. The data stuff has a timestamp and it’s on its way out.” DDD is working with universities to bring in courses that are focused on some of the new and emerging skills sets that will be needed.

Conclusions. In short, there are plenty of critical questions remaining in the area of microwork, impact sourcing and around the broader question of the future of youth employment at the global level. How to stay abreast of the rapid changes in economy, business, and technology? What skill sets are needed? A recent article in India’s Business Standard notes constant efforts at re-skilling IT workers. These question are facing not only ‘developing countries’ but the US is also in a similar crisis. Will online work with no wraparound services be a stopgap solution? Will holistic models be pushed so that young people develop additional life skills that will help them in the longer term? Will we learn how to measure and understand the ‘impact’ in ‘impact sourcing?’ Much remains to explore and test!

Thanks to the Global Center for Youth Employment and RTI for supporting this Salon, to our lead discussants and participants, and to ThoughtWorks for hosting us! If you’d like to join us for a future Technology Salon, sign up here!

 

 

 

 

 

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At our April 5th Salon in Washington, DC we had the opportunity to take a closer look at open data and privacy and discuss the intersection of the two in the framework of ‘responsible data’. Our lead discussants were Amy O’Donnell, Oxfam GB; Rob Baker, World Bank; Sean McDonald, FrontlineSMS. I had the pleasure of guest moderating.

What is Responsible Data?

We started out by defining ‘responsible data‘ and some of the challenges when thinking about open data in a framework of responsible data.

The Engine Room defines ‘responsible data’ as

the duty to ensure people’s rights to consent, privacy, security and ownership around the information processes of collection, analysis, storage, presentation and reuse of data, while respecting the values of transparency and openness.

Responsible Data can be like walking a tightrope, noted our first discussant, and you need to find the right balance between opening data and sharing it, all the while being ethical and responsible. “Data is inherently related to power – it can create power, redistribute it, make the powerful more powerful or further marginalize the marginalized. Getting the right balance involves asking some key questions throughout the data lifecycle from design of the data gathering all the way through to disposal of the data.

How can organizations be more responsible?

If an organization wants to be responsible about data throughout the data life cycle, some questions to ask include:

  • In whose interest is it to collect the data? Is it extractive or empowering? Is there informed consent?
  • What and how much do you really need to know? Is the burden of collecting and the liability of storing the data worth it when balanced with the data’s ability to represent people and allow them to be counted and served? Do we know what we’ll actually be doing with the data?
  • How will the data be collected and treated? What are the new opportunities and risks of collecting and storing and using it?
  • Why are you collecting it in the first place? What will it be used for? Will it be shared or opened? Is there a data sharing MOU and has the right kind of consent been secured? Who are we opening the data for and who will be able to access and use it?
  • What is the sensitivity of the data and what needs to be stripped out in order to protect those who provided the data?

Oxfam has developed a data deposit framework to help assess the above questions and make decisions about when and whether data can be open or shared.

(The Engine Room’s Responsible Development Data handbook offers additional guidelines and things to consider)

(See: https://wiki.responsibledata.io/Data_in_the_project_lifecycle for more about the data lifecycle)

Is ‘responsible open data’ an oxymoron?

Responsible Data policies and practices don’t work against open data, our discussant noted. Responsible Data is about developing a framework so that data can be opened and used safely. It’s about respecting the time and privacy of those who have provided us with data and reducing the risk of that data being hacked. As more data is collected digitally and donors are beginning to require organizations to hand over data that has been collected with their funding, it’s critical to have practical resources and help staff to be more responsible about data.

Some disagreed that consent could be truly informed and that open data could ever be responsible since once data is open, all control over the data is lost. “If you can’t control the way the data is used, you can’t have informed people. It’s like saying ‘you gave us permission to open your data, so if something bad happens to you, oh well….” Informed consent is also difficult nowadays because data sets are being used together and in ways that were not possible when informed consent was initially obtained.

Others noted that standard informed consent practices are unhelpful, as people don’t understand what might be done with their data, especially when they have low data literacy. Involving local communities and individuals in defining what data they would like to have and use could make the process more manageable and useful for those whose data we are collecting, using and storing, they suggested.

One person said that if consent to open data was not secured initially; the data cannot be opened, say, 10 years later. Another felt that it was one thing to open data for a purpose and something entirely different to say “we’re going to open your data so people can do fun things with it, to play around with it.”

But just what data are we talking about?

USAID was questioned for requiring grantees to share data sets and for leaning towards de-identification rather than raising the standard to data anonymity. One person noted that at one point the agency had proposed a 22-step process for releasing data and even that was insufficient for protecting program participants in a risky geography because “it’s very easy to figure out who in a small community recently received 8 camels.” For this reason, exclusions are an important part of open data processes, he said.

It’s not black or white, said another. Responsible open data is possible, but openness happens along a spectrum. You have financial data on the one end, which should be very open as the public has a right to know how its tax dollars are being spent. Human subjects research is on the other end, and it should not be totally open. (Author’s note: The Open Knowledge Foundation definition of open data says: “A key point is that when opening up data, the focus is on non-personal data, that is, data which does not contain information about specific individuals.” The distinction between personal data, such as that in household level surveys, and financial data on agency or government activities seems to be blurred or blurring in current debates around open data and privacy.) “Open data will blow up in your face if it’s not done responsibly,” he noted. “But some of the open data published via IATI (the International Aid Transparency Initiative) has led to change.”

A participant followed this comment up by sharing information from a research project conducted on stakeholders’ use of IATI data in 3 countries. When people knew that the open data sets existed they were very excited, she said. “These are countries where there is no Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and where people cannot access data because no one will give it to them. They trusted the US Government’s data more than their own government data, and there was a huge demand for IATI data. People were very interested in who was getting what funding. They wanted information for planning, coordination, line ministries and other logistical purposes. So let’s not underestimate open data. If having open data sets means that governments, health agencies or humanitarian organizations can do a better job of serving people, that may make for a different kind of analysis or decision.”

‘Open by default’ or ‘open by demand’?

Though there are plenty of good intentions and rationales for open data, said one discussant, ‘open by default’ is a mistake. We may have quick wins with a reduction in duplicity of data collection, but our experiences thus far do not merit ‘open by default’. We have not earned it. Instead, he felt that ‘open by demand’ is a better idea. “We can put out a public list of the data that’s available and see what demand for data comes in. If we are proactive on what is available and what can be made available, and we monitor requests, we can avoid putting out information that no one is interested in. This would lower the overhead on what we are releasing. It would also allow us to have a conversation about who needs this data and for what.”

One participant agreed, positing that often the only reason that we collect data is to provide proof and evidence that we’re doing our job, spending the money given to us, and tracking back. “We tend to think that the only way to provide this evidence is to collect data: do a survey, talk to people, look at website usage. But is anyone actually using this data, this evidence to make decisions?”

Is the open data honeymoon over?

“We need to do a better job of understanding the impact at a wider level,” said another participant, “and I think it’s pretty light. Talking about open data is too general. We need to be more service oriented and problem driven. The conversation is very different when you are using data to solve a particular problem and you can focus on something tangible like service delivery or efficiency. Open data is expensive and not sustainable in the current setup. We need to figure this out.”

Another person shared results from an informal study on the use of open data portals around the world. He found around 2,500 open data portals, and only 3.8% of them use https (the secure version of http). Most have very few visitors, possibly due to poor Internet access in the countries whose open data they are serving up, he said. Several exist in countries with a poor Freedom House ranking and/or in countries at the bottom end of the World Bank’s Digital Dividends report. “In other words, the portals have been built for people who can’t even use them. How responsible is this?” he asked, “And what is the purpose of putting all that data out there if people don’t have the means to access it and we continue to launch more and more portals? Where’s all this going?”

Are we conflating legal terms?

Legal frameworks around data ownership were debated. Some said that the data belonged to the person or agency that collected it or paid for the cost of collecting in terms of copyright and IP. Others said that the data belonged to the individual who provided it. (Author’s note: Participants may have been referring to different categories of data, eg., financial data from government vs human subjects data.) The question was raised of whether informed consent for open data in the humanitarian space is basically a ‘contract of adhesion’ (a term for a legally binding agreement between two parties wherein one side has all the bargaining power and uses it to its advantage). Asking a person to hand over data in an emergency situation in order to enroll in a humanitarian aid program is akin to holding a gun to a person’s head in order to get them to sign a contract, said one person.

There’s a world of difference between ‘published data’ and ‘openly licensed data,’ commented our third discussant. “An open license is a complete lack of control, and you can’t be responsible with something you can’t control. There are ways to be responsible about the way you open something, but once it’s open, your responsibility has left the port.” ‘Use-based licensing’ is something else, and most IP is governed by how it’s used. For example, educational institutions get free access to data because they are educational institutions. Others pay and this subsidized their use of this data, he explained.

One person suggested that we could move from the idea of ‘open data’ to sub-categories related to how accessible the data would be and to whom and for what purposes. “We could think about categories like: completely open, licensed, for a fee, free, closed except for specific uses, etc.; and we could also specify for whom, whose data and for what purposes. If we use the term ‘accessible’ rather than ‘open’ perhaps we can attach some restrictions to it,” she said.

Is data an asset or a liability?

Our current framing is wrong, said one discussant. We should think of data as a toxic asset since as soon as it’s in our books and systems, it creates proactive costs and proactive risks. Threat modeling is a good approach, he noted. Data can cause a lot of harm to an organization – it’s a liability, and if it’s not used or stored according to local laws, an agency could be sued. “We’re far under the bar. We are not compliant with ‘safe harbor’ or ECOWAS regulations. There are libel questions and property laws that our sector is ignorant of. Our good intentions mislead us in terms of how we are doing things. There is plenty of room to build good practice here, he noted, for example through Civic Trusts. Another participant noted that insurance underwriters are already moving into this field, meaning that they see growing liability in this space.

How can we better engage communities and the grassroots?

Some participants shared examples of how they and their organizations have worked closely at the grassroots level to engage people and communities in protecting their own privacy and using open data for their own purposes. Threat modeling is an approach that helps improve data privacy and security, said one. “When we do threat modeling, we treat the data that we plan to collect as a potential asset. At each step of collection, storage, sharing process – we ask, ‘how will we protect those assets? What happens if we don’t share that data? If we don’t collect it? If we don’t delete it?’”

In one case, she worked with very vulnerable women working on human rights issues and together the group put together an action plan to protect its data from adversaries. The threats that they had predicted actually happened and the plan was put into action. Threat modeling also helps to “weed the garden once you plant it,” she said, meaning that it helps organizations and individuals keep an eye on their data, think about when to delete data, pay attention to what happens after data’s opened and dedicate some time for maintenance rather than putting all their attention on releasing and opening data.

More funding needs to be made available for data literacy for those whose data has been collected and/or opened. We need to help people think about what data is of use to them also. One person recalled hearing people involved in the creation of the Kenya Open Government Data portal say that the entire process was a waste of time because of low levels of use of any of the data. There are examples, however, of people using open data and verifying it at community level. For example, high school students in one instance found the data on all the so-called grocery stores in their community and went one-by-one checking into them, and identifying that some of these were actually liquor stores selling potato chips, not actual grocery stores. Having this information and engaging with it can be powerful for local communities’ advocacy work.

Are we the failure here? What are we going to do about it?

One discussant felt that ‘data’ and ‘information’ are often and easily conflated. “Data alone is not power. Information is data that is contextualized into something that is useful.” This brings into question the value of having so many data portals, and so much risk, when so little is being done to turn data into information that is useful to the people our sector says it wants to support and empower.

He gave the example of the Weather Channel, a business built around open data sets that are packaged and broadcast, which just got purchased for $2 billion. Channels like radio that would have provided information to the poor were not purchased, only the web assets, meaning that those who benefit are not the disenfranchised. “Our organizations are actually just like the Weather Channel – we are intermediaries who are interested in taking and using open data for public good.”

As intermediaries, we can add value in the dissemination of this open data, he said. If we have the skills, the intention and the knowledge to use it responsibly, we have a huge opportunity here. “However our enlightened intent has not yet turned this data into information and knowledge that communities can use to improve their lives, so are we the failure here? And if so, what are we doing about it? We could immediately begin engaging communities and seeing what is useful to them.” (See this article for more discussion on how ‘open’ may disenfranchise the poor.)

Where to from here?

Some points raised that merit further discussion and attention include:

  • There is little demand or use of open data (such as government data and finances) and preparing and maintaining data sets is costly – ‘open by demand’ may be a more appropriate approach than ‘open by default.’
  • There is a good deal of disagreement about whether data can be opened responsibly. Some of this disagreement may stem from a lack of clarity about what kind of data we are talking about when we talk about open data.
  • Personal data and human subjects data that was never foreseen to be part of “open data” is potentially being opened, bringing with it risks for those who share it as well as for those who store it.
  • Informed consent for personal/human subject data is a tricky concept and it’s not clear whether it is even possible in the current scenario of personal data being ‘opened’ and the lack of control over how it may be used now or in the future, and the increasing ease of data re-identification.
  • We may want to look at data as a toxic asset rather than a beneficial one, because of the liabilities it brings.
  • Rather than a blanket “open” categorization, sub-categorizations that restrict data sets in different ways might be a possibility.
  • The sector needs to improve its understanding of the legal frameworks around data and data collection, storage and use or it may start to see lawsuits in the near future.
  • Work on data literacy and community involvement in defining what data is of interest and is collected, as well as threat modeling together with community groups is a way to reduce risk and improve data quality, demand and use; but it’s a high-touch activity that may not be possible for every kind of organization.
  • As data intermediaries, we need to do a much better job as a sector to see what we are doing with open data and how we are using it to provide services and contextualized information to the poor and disenfranchised. This is a huge opportunity and we have not done nearly enough here.

The Technology Salon is conducted under Chatham House Rule so attribution has not been made in this post. If you’d like to attend future Salons, sign up here

 

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