It’s time to open our walled gardens

by | Aug 26, 2020 | ICT4D |

walled gardens of data

Growing up, Ayu witnessed various tragedies in her country. Some conflict related, some disasters due to living by the sea. She saw how it affected her family and friends, how it interrupted her schooling. But also she knew she always wanted to help. So when she was older and disaster struck again, she was first in line helping her community. And eventually joined a NGO to continue helping.

Her role involved liaising with community members and leaders. Listening and then feeding back to the organisation what was going well and what wasn’t. One of the things she discovered was that many community leaders wondered if they might have access to the data the NGOs are collecting. They thought it could be helpful for them to understand the needs of their community better. And help them prioritise their focus. Or even help them make decisions for their community’s future.

I remember talking with Ayu about this. It was a sensible request, but unfortunately I didn’t know how to make it happen. And if I’m honest, I didn’t think it should happen so didn’t make much of an effort. I regret that now.

NGO databases are overflowing with data about communities all over the world. Data is omnipresent now. It doesn’t matter if you are a small local NGO, a large international one, or the UN. Data is everywhere and we all seem to want more of it. And yet, most of this data is in walled gardens which no one is allowed to visit. Sometimes it’s even difficult to get in if you work for the organisation that maintains the walled garden.

Data sharing, open data, data portability are all terms used trying to unlock parts of these walled gardens or the entire thing. It is not a technology problem or to continue the analogy, it is not that keys don’t exist or can’t be made. More often it is a question of will and fear. And mostly fear.

Fear of the unknown. Fear of potential harm. And fear of being caught out. Fear of change. Fear of difficult and uncomfortable conversations.

Maybe we have less data than others think we have. Perhaps our data quality is not what we want it to be. Maybe our data isn’t structured, it’s messy, or it’s old. But maybe, just maybe, our data is similar to everyone else’s. And maybe it is the part of the puzzle that unlocks positive change.

People work for NGOs and community organisations to make positive change. People donate to NGOs for the same reason. Most development and humanitarian theory is based on people, communities having agency to make their own decisions. And that a key role NGOs can play is to facilitate discussions, share knowledge, and bring various resources.

However, more often than not NGOs (of all shapes and forms) become focused on themselves and their preservation. We build walls.

Part of the future must be about ensuring the people we seek to serve have access to their data, can take it with them wherever they go (data portability). The future must also include enabling communities and their leaders to have access to the data we have about their communities so they can also use it (open data). Part of the future must be NGOs sharing more data with each other without one actor needing to control it all (data sharing). And yes, this will mean there will be difficult conversations as different people will have different opinions and perspectives. And yes, there are privacy, protection, and ethical concerns to work through (but we are not the only ones who care about this!).

The fear is normal. Fear is human. Fear doesn’t need to be downplayed. It’s actually healthy to acknowledge it. But fear doesn’t need to stop us from doing the difficult things.

The future must be different than the past. And we can help drag it into the present. The choice is up to us.

Photo by Annie Spratt


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