In our shift to digital, we were blinded by the shiny gadgets like children on Christmas morning. And now, we find ourselves with a multitude of systems, gadgets and data wondering why they do not ‘talk’ to each other. In our fascination with the shiny toys, we forgot (or refused) to do the hard work of agreeing standards or governance. We even overlooked the basics of literacy which is fundamental in using the systems. And so we find ourselves picking up the pieces, fighting over who controls the data, and stuck in a mess of our own making.
And as appears to be the pattern of many things at the moment, cash and voucher programming is coming to our rescue. In non-cash programming, we set up consortiums that allowed us to operate in our traditional siloed way. We set ourselves up either by geography or by sector ensuring we didn’t need to share data with each other, only reports to the prime agency.
However, now with cash, we are being forced to how different agencies and even private sectors entities! play perform different functions in implementation. And this means, that if one agency registers the community members, another distributes the cash, and another does the accountability and monitoring, then we actually need to share data between each other. And this raises all our skeletons in the closet around trust and control.
Because we don’t have standards around data security, around data collection, around beneficiary registration, and so on, we find ourselves beating our chests saying that our way is better than your way. But without any common basis to have the discussion. Those of us with digital systems rise up and seek to be the one ring to rule them all. A faulty tone deaf answer at best.
Perhaps it’s worthwhile to stop navel gazing and grasping for power and control. Perhaps it’s time to look outside ourselves. Airlines fiercely compete for passengers, while also sharing passenger data seamlessly. They do this through a separate not-for-profit organisation that all the airlines jointly own and rotate the chairperson each year. While no one airline ‘owns’ the data, they all ‘own’ it together.
In the world of digital identity, organisations, foundations, and companies have spent years trying to solve the challenge of how do you prove the person on the internet is who they say they are. Decentralised digital identity was born, given life by organisations like the Sovrin Foundation, uPort, SelfKey, and Tim Berners-Lee’s Solid Server project. And now there are a gazillion start-ups working in this space. It’s all about the individual and the idea that individuals should own and control who has access to data about them. Mass adoption of this technology is years off yet, but it is possible.
And it’s not just companies looking at this, the Canadian government has been working on this for years as well. Their Pan-Canadian Trust Framework is one of the leading thought pieces globally. It outlines how Canadian citizens can access countless government services without needing to share personal data with each service.
Beyond an individual organisation or individual person owning and controlling data lies the collective; the commons. Woven within the fabric of humanitarian agencies is the belief of the value of the community. Our work often is with communities, not just focusing only on individuals. There is a fundamental belief in that the sum of the parts is greater than individual parts. And thus, this belief should be part of the fabric of how we share data.
Building on the learning from outside our sector, we can build a future in which the data about the people we seek to serve is kept within a data trust. A trust is an entity created to hold assets for the benefit of certain persons or entities, with a trustee managing the trust. In the humanitarian application, the trustees of the data trust can include representatives from the community about whom the data is. This is slightly different than the airline approach because it is using a different, more light weight legal vehicle. A trust has distinct, clear, and detailed rules about what data it holds, who has access to it, and how the data can be used. It is managed collectively. It sets the rules and standards collectively. It works with legacy and cutting edge systems.
In the end, we all love our gadgets and shiny toys. And frankly, we all want to choose our own. None of us like having choice taken away from us. We inherently dislike monopolies and are scared of global registries of our or vulnerable people’s data. And we don’t need one ring to rule them all; we need context appropriate solutions. Data Trusts help us resolve the data governance challenge freeing us up to set standards and get on with the work our mission statements drive us to.
We are in this together. Perhaps it’s time to stop fighting over controlling data and put that energy into helping those we seek to serve.