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A rights based approach to responsible data

Posted by Amy O Donnell ICT in Programme Lead, Haneen Malallah Knowledge and Learning Advisor, Oxfam America

27th Aug 2015

Today Oxfam is proud to publish a new Responsible Data Policy which focuses on our commitment to treat the programme data we collect with respect and uphold the rights of those whom data is about. Amy O'Donnell explains the significance of treating data responsibly through a rights-based approach and the need for an organisational policy.

At a recent learning event, we asked staff to raise their hands if they had ever asked a community member a question. Then, to do the same if they had ever taken a photo. Finally we asked them to raise their hand if they had ever had access to a database. Unsurprisingly, everyone in the room had tired arms by the end. This just goes to show that at Oxfam, as with many organisations, most of us use data. Data can be any kind of information about the communities with whom we work, photographs, analysis and charts - the list goes on.

Credit: Data has invaluable applications to ensure organisations like Oxfam are needs-driven and responsive; but, there are also huge risks to communities if the related processes are not designed and managed in a responsible manner. The CEO of IBM even went so far as to suggest that 'Data is the new oil.' Just like oil, data is linked to power. It can create power, take it away, disrupt it and often marginalise groups of people as a result.

What does responsible data mean?

At Oxfam, we've been pushing ourselves to look at our data practices and ask whether we are being responsible with data. So what does responsible data actually mean? The engine room hosted The Responsible Data Forum last October 2014 and the definition we came up with was: '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.'

Adopting meaningful approaches to data security and ethical methodology is not a new effort within Oxfam and the development community (see, for example, our research guidelines). What is new, however, is the way that information communications technologies (ICTs) are presenting new challenges and opportunities to which we must react, as well as ensuring staff have resources and knowledge about how to collect, store, manage, use and even dispose of data responsibly. Contexts vary widely and it is fundamental that Oxfam is adaptable and responsive to different environments, rules, regulations and sensitivities.

Engaging communities in data collection and usage

Beyond the technical components, we also need to ensure we are engaging communities in the process of data collection and usage as much as possible without inadvertently putting people at risk. This might include ensuring we are not extractive but empower the contributors of data to take ownership over how data is used. We were able to do this in the Philippines where community feedback was carried out within 24-72 hours of collecting data and 'the communities said this helped them feel reassured that their peers shared their concerns and that NGOs were not only listening to their concerns, but responding to them.'


Oxfam's Executive Directors have just signed off a cross-affiliate Responsible Data Policy. The policy covers the entire data lifecycle, from ensuring we gain informed consent; to not collecting so much data that we place a burden on communities; to ensuring we have transparency in data sharing; right through to responsibly disposing of information we've collected but no longer need.

Today, we are also proud to announce that Oxfam is now a Responsible Data Forum Partner allowing us to access expertise and work with others in the responsible data community.

This involves joining a consortium to help develop useful tools and strategies for managing the ethical, security and privacy challenges that surround the use of data in programming.

Underlying the motivation for the policy and work with the Responsible Data Forum is that staff at Oxfam want to be able to utilise data to be more responsive, while ensure we are responsible in our approach. Over the next year, Oxfam will be testing the policy in a number of our countries, pointing staff to available resources to support implementation and, where needed, developing guidance around data management and arranging training to complement the policy to ensure that it is adhered to.

See this post on how we developed the policy and information on a roundtable event we hosted with other development and humanitarian actors.

Read more

1. Last Mile Mobile Solutions is a digital beneficiary registration and distribution management tool for humanitarian service delivery. In May 2013, Oxfam GB staff and partners were trained to pilot LMMS in three flood-prone provinces in the Philippines with support from World Vision. The team registered 2,401 members from 432 households in three days. Credit: Pooja Kishnani/Oxfam
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Blog post written by Amy O Donnell

ICT in Programme Lead

More by Amy O Donnell

Amy O'Donnell

Blog post written by Haneen Malallah

Knowledge and Learning Advisor, Oxfam America

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Haneen Malallah