Always a good thing?

by | Oct 2, 2019 | ICT4D

Paddling a canoe in clear water allows you to spot rocks to avoid. Seeing inside shops through windows allows you to see if the shop is open. Some watches allow you see their inner workings. Seeing inside a lightbulb can help you determine if it is broken.

Being open, transparent, accountable are assumed to be a good thing. We hear them a lot in speeches, visions and missions. We read them in books on leadership, people and project management, and so on. I use them too. However, they are often buzz words.

It’s usually good practice to define the words we use so that others understand what we mean by them. Define can be a dictionary definition, which is appropriate at times, but defining can also be done through stories. Usually a series of stories. You can imagine which definition ‘sticks’ with people more.

So when we talk about being open, transparent, accountable, we need to ask ‘to whom’ and ‘about what’. In the recent thinking about data trusts, I use these words a lot. And so to clarify, I am not suggesting being transparent means that anyone and everyone can ‘see’ the data in the data trust. This would expose vulnerable people to increased harm almost immediately. No, the transparency I mean is the purpose of the trust and the ‘rules’ by which it will abide. I also think it would be good to be transparent about who has access to the data in the trust.

This type transparency can help everyone involved and even ‘outsiders’ hold the trustees accountable. If the trust is transparent about what its purpose is and who is involved, then it is ‘easier’ for others to point out when things move away from this.

At the same time, it is likely not a good idea to be open and transparent about who’s data is contained within the trust. There is the potential for harm by doing this, so it is unlikely to be wise. Or at least, some significant discussions are required before taking this step. And certainly a clear reason is needed. For example, it may be helpful for a HIV clinic to know where its patients live, but if that information is made public (or transparent) we immediately are telling the world who has HIV.

Openness, transparency, accountability have their place and perform critical functions in our world. But they still need to be done purposefully and intentionally.

Photo by Pahala Basuki

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