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We Must Be Accountable for the Data We Collect

By Guest Writer on October 5, 2017

Data collection privacy security

In today’s world, there is no question of the power of data. Some people consider data the new gold, and even associate some of the data processes with metallurgy terminology: ‘data mining’ and ‘data extraction’.

These terms refer to the power that data has to convey information and attempting to explain chaos by it. This idea is particularly applicable in certain sectors where data, by itself, is not good enough. It requires the expertise, operational capacity, and political willingness to achieve all its potential: evidence-based impact.

This idea is particularly applicable in certain sectors where data, by itself, is not good enough. It requires the expertise, operational capacity, and political willingness to achieve all its potential: evidence-based impact.

This is the case of both the development and the humanitarian sectors. With new information technologies, the capacity to collect, analyze, and visualize data in matter of seconds has exponentially expanded the ability of many organizations to design programs with and for those who need them the most.

We Cannot Be Blinded by Data

One of the most dangerous ideas – exposed very well in weapons of math destruction – is the idea that data, by itself, is accountable for particular decision-making processes. This is especially untrue for tough decisions, and decisions in the field that require a matter of seconds to be able to save lives, feed people, or give particular medical attention to those who are wounded.

When measuring impact is delegated to data alone, impact is never achieved. It is not enough to “extract” data from the so-called “beneficiaries” of projects. Our role as data scientists, humanitarians, and innovators is to be accountable to those who are gracious to give us their insights of a world that we sometimes cannot explain in a graph. We need to be able to explain why are we doing this, how it will improve their lives, what would happen after we obtain this data, and when we are supposed to ameliorate their suffering.

If we are not able to respond to these questions prior to collecting data, the impact cycle will never be completed. The best way to measure impact is to see how data is changing and improve quality of services and lives. In order to do this, we require not only technology, but strong operational capacity to be able to not only answer all these questions, but actually do the things we promise to deliver.

Ethics and Data Protection is Key to Achieving Impact

The issue of ethics and data protection is key in achieving impact. I believe this is the case of UNHCR. It has been extremely successful in the application and design of one of the strongest data protection policies. Influenced by the European model, UNHCR has been historically criticized for being extremely zealous in the protection and sharing of its data. But this is necessary, particularly when a data breach could potentially harm people.

For example, breaches could expose refugees or asylum seekers that are fleeing from persecution to serious human rights violations, torture, and inhumane treatment and ultimately, the deprivation of life. Instead of creating good impact, data becomes a negative externality that could potentially kill someone. Literally.

Much is to be done still in the this area, where bigger and faster data will arise and more technologies will give us more data to deal with. Data protection is a new and exciting area for policy-makers and legislators that requires strong political willingness to succeed.

We Must Co-Create With, Not For, Our Constituents

Technology is not enough in the realm of data. In the humanitarian innovation space, technology is just a piece of the equation for co-creating impact. Co-creating means asking first to those who we want to help, how can we improve their lives, what are we doing wrong and who can help us serve them better. Establishing this baseline first is key.

We ask partners, particularly those in the private sector, to not only understand our operational context, deprived sometimes of electricity or even good data latency, that makes it particularly hard to even watch a YouTube video.

The expertise that is required is not in the technology front: it is in the understanding that any investment in humanitarian and development sectors, are long-term investments. And even this, is not good enough. Our teams must also increase their already overwhelmed capacity to understand the new advances in technology and keep up with the new was to process and analyze data.

Many organizations are doing very good job on this. But, given the needs of the people we serve, is it enough?

By Rebeca Moreno Jiménez, Data Lab Manager at UNHCR Innovation, and originally published as Data for Good Enough.

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