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A data revolution is underway. Will NGOs miss the boat?

Posted by Sophia Ayele Research Assistant

2nd Sep 2015

A woman being registered by Oxfam as a head of household for distributions in the event of flooding in Pampanga, Philippines. Credit: Oxfam

We live in a world where more data is being generated than ever before. For NGOs in international development increased data offers opportunities and poses risks, but ignoring it is not an option. Oxfam Research Assistant, Sophia Ayele, looks at how data can be used responsibly to improve lives through more effective development programmes.

The data revolution has arrived. Data is all around us - every time we Google, post on Twitter or walk down the street with our phones, we are generating data. A recent ODI Report Data Revolution - Finding The Missing Million described this revolution as, "an explosion in the volume of data, the speed with which data are produced, the number of producers of data, the dissemination of data, and the range of things on which there are data..." This explosion of data is increasingly being harnessed to look for patterns and to provide additional insights about our world.

More and more governments are adopting open data policies, providing access to official statistics. Multilateral institutions have also jumped on board. The World Bank's Open Data Initiative has been running for the last five years. Academics, like the Poverty Action Lab at MIT and Young Lives Project out of the Univ. of Oxford are also sharing data. The UN has even launched a Data Revolution Group (to ensure that the revolution penetrates into international development). The Group's 2014 report suggests that harnessing the power of newly available data could ultimately lead to, "more empowered people, better policies, better decisions and greater participation and accountability, leading to better outcomes for people and the planet."

But where do NGOs fit in?  

NGOs are generating dozens (if not hundreds) of datasets every year Over the last two decades, NGO have been collecting increasing amounts of research and evaluation data, largely driven by donor demands for more rigorous evaluations of programs. The quality and efficiency of data collection has also been enhanced by mobile data collection. However, a quick scan of UK development NGOs reveals that few, if any, are sharing the data that they collect. This means that NGOs are generating dozens (if not hundreds) of datasets every year that aren't being fully exploited and analysed. Working on tight budgets, with limited capacity, it's not surprising that NGOs often shy away from sharing data without a clear mandate.

But change is in the air. Several donors have begun requiring NGOs to publicise data and others appear to be moving in that direction. Last year, USAID launched its Open Data Policy which requires that grantees "submit any dataset created or collected with USAID funding..." Not only does USAID stipulate this requirement, it also hosts this data on its Development Data Library (DDL) and provides guidance on anonymisation to depositors. Similarly, Gates Foundation's 2015 Open Access Policy stipulates that, "Data underlying published research results will be accessible and open immediately." However, they are allowing a two-year transition period.

Is there a responsible path for NGOs like Oxfam?

Here at Oxfam, we have been exploring ways to begin sharing research and evaluation data. We aren't being required to do this - yet - but, we realise that the data that we collect is a public good with the potential to improve lives through more effective development programmes and to raise the voices of those with whom we work. Moreover, organizations like Oxfam can play a crucial role in highlighting issues facing women and other marginalized communities that aren't always captured in national statistics. Sharing data is also good practice and would increase our transparency and accountability as an organization.

... the data that we collect is a public good with the potential to improve livesHowever, Oxfam also bears a huge responsibility to protect the rights of the communities that we work with. This involves ensuring informed consent when gathering data, so that communities are fully aware that their data may be shared, and de-identifying data to a level where individuals and households cannot be easily identified.

As Oxfam has outlined in our, recently adopted, Responsible Data Policy,"Using data responsibly is not just an issue of technical security and encryption but also of safeguarding the rights of people to be counted and heard, ensuring their dignity, respect and privacy, enabling them to make an informed decision and protecting their right to not be put at risk…"

This policy, which outlines Oxfam's approach to data collection and use as well as minimum standards for staff, partners and contractors, is helping to guide our work. We have also consulted widely, spent time learning about good practice for data de-identification and researched the safest data hosting platforms. As experts will tell you, true anonymisation is virtually impossible, but there are established good practices for removing personal information from data. The Responsible Data Forum and UK Anonymisation Network (which provides free anonymisation clinics) have all been extremely helpful in this process.

In some cases, we may decide not to share data... if they could put people at risk We have identified the UK Data Service as a safe platform and plan to begin sharing data there in the autumn. The UK Data Service provides secure access to data for research purposes. Data is only available to registered users and there are strict controls on how it can be handled and used. We are also working with our legal and information security teams to review our internal systems and rules around data collection, handling and storage.

This has involved revamping guidelines for staff, consultants and partners working with data and developing a system of oversight to ensure that data will be adequately de-identified prior to deposit with UK Data Service. We have also developed internal controls to determine when it is appropriate and safe to share data. In some cases, we may decide not to share data. For example, if they are determined to be of a highly sensitive nature and could put people at risk.

We are very proud of this initiative and excited about the contribution that it will make to the development knowledge-base. Nonetheless, we are proceeding with caution, as it feels a bit like venturing out into uncharted waters. The process will take place gradually, starting with a small number of datasets and expanding overtime.

As we navigate the complexities of informed consent and de-identification, one thing is clear - the data revolution is here and it's here to stay.

The question isn't whether NGOs should engage with it. It's when and how.

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Photo: A woman being registered by Oxfam as a head of household for distributions in the event of flooding in Pampanga, Philippines. Credit: Oxfam

Blog post written by Sophia Ayele

Research Assistant

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