Never the Intent

by | Apr 20, 2019 | Development, ICT4D |

As a development and humanitarian community, we have made great strides over the past decade in using digital technologies.  We have moved many processes from paper to digital.  Collecting data is nothing new for us; now we have more of it and greater, plus quicker access to the data we collect.

While there have been some helpful organisational benefits enabled by the digital shift – cost savings, efficiency gains, increased speed, better logistics, etc., there also have been a few unintended consequences for those with whom we work; some not so positive results.  Here are three to consider:

First, going digital makes it easier to identify different groups of people – Group data and the ability to identify groups is valuable to us and others. we don’t even need personally identifiable information to identify groups.  Our laws do not protect group data.

Second, going digital makes it is easier to track them.  Digitally registering people, enables us to track their movements, we can see where the refugees move to, where they travel, how they spread.  We can track their movements, their buying habits.  All of this can be used for good, but also for ill as we have created a surveillance system.

Third, going digital combined with the fear of fraud and double dipping make upholding the humanitarian principles challenging.  When an individual does not want to share their data, frontline staff will try to provide aid, but the audit team doesn’t like anonymous distributions because it makes it harder to prove recipients are not receiving double the allowance.  If frontline staff give out aid to too many anonymous people, they will be flagged as a fraud risk.  Aid now comes with the mandatory price of your data.

So what can we do?  Here are four practical considerations:

Consciously Show Up.  We can continually improve if we keep showing up, engaging, and learning.  It is critical for us to invest time and resources in listening to those affected, especially in face-to-face communication, asking them how we can help them understand their rights better, the value of their data, and how they can protect it. 

Creatively Communicate early, often, clearly and in multiple ways about the rights of those affected especially when it comes to sharing their data, how it is used, the choices they have, the opportunities digital presents and how to live wisely in a digital world.  Use banners, pamphlets, videos, theatre groups, focus groups.  Expect pockets of the people we work with to be linguistically or digitally illiterate or both.

Ensure there is Choice for the people we work with – ensure there is an alternative available for people to refuse to provide data but still receive aid and that our frontline staff do not feel they will be accused of fraud.

Enable Greater Control for those affected over their data.  Where possible, we must give the data we collect about beneficiaries to them.  Allow them to access and control it; ideally allow them to use their data however they wish without our involvement (Explore self-sovereign identity options).


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