by Jo Kaybryn
Our MERL Tech DC session, “Ethics and unintended consequences of digital programs and digital MERL” was a facilitated discussion about some of the challenges we face in the Wild West of digital and technology-enabled MERL and the data that it generates. Here are some of the things that stood out from discussions with participants and our experience.
Sometimes we are not clear on why we are collecting data. ‘Just because we can’ is not a valid reason to collect or use data and technology. What purposes are driving our data collection and use of technology? What is the problem we are trying to solve? A lack of specificity can allow us stray into speculative data collection — if we’re collecting data on X, then it’s a good opportunity to collect data on Y “in case we need it in the future”. Do we ever really need it in the future? And if we do go back to it, we often find that because we didn’t collect the data on Y with a specific purpose, it’s not the “right” data for our needs. So, let’s always ask ourselves why are we collecting this data, do we really need it?
Projects are increasingly under pressure to be more efficient and cost-effective in their data collection, yet the need or desire to conduct more robust assessments can requires the collection of data on multiple dimensions within a community. These two dynamics are often in conflict with each other. Here are three questions that can help guide our decision making:
- Are there existing data sets that are “good enough” to meet the M&E needs of a project? Often there are, and they are collected regularly enough to be useful. Lean on partners who understand the data space to help map out what exists and what really needs to be collected. Leverage partners who are innovating in the data space – can machine learning and AI-produced data meet 80% of your needs? If so, consider it.
- What data are we critically in need of to assess a project? Build an efficient data collection methodology that considers respondent burden and potentially includes multiple channels for receiving responses to increase inclusivity.
- What will the data be used for? Sensitive contexts and life or death decisions require a different level of specificity and periodicity than less sensitive projects. Think about data from this lens when deciding which information to collect, how often to collect it, and who to collect it from.
It is worth exploring questions of access in our data collection practices. Who has access to the data and the technology? Do the people about whom the data is, have access to it? Have we considered the harms that could come from the collection, storage, and use of data? For instance, while it can be useful to know where all the clients are who are accessing a pregnancy clinic to design better services, an unintended consequence may involve others having the ability to identify people who are pregnant, which pregnant people might not like these others to know. What can we do to protect the privacy of vulnerable populations? Also, going digital can be helpful, but if a person or community implicated in a data collection endeavour does not have access to technology or to a charging point – are we not just increasing or reinforcing inequality?
While we often advocate for transparency in many parts of our industry, we are not always transparent about our data practices. Are we willing to tell others, to tell community members, why we are collecting data, using technology, and how we are using information? If we are clear on our purpose, but not willing for it to be transparent, then it might be a good reason to reconsider. Yet, transparency does not equate accountability, so what are the mechanisms for ensuring greater accountability towards the people and communities we seek to serve?
Power and patience
One of the issues we’re facing is power imbalances. The demands that are made of us from donors about data, and the technology solutions that are presented to us, all make us feel like we’re not in control. But the rules haven’t been written yet — we get to write them.
One of the lessons from the responsible data workshop leading up to the conference was that organisations can get out in front of demands for data by developing their own data management and privacy policies. From this position it is easier to enter into dialogues and negotiations, with the organisational policy as your backstop. Therefore, it is worth asking, Who has power? For what? Where does it reside and how can we rebalance it?
Literacy underpins much of this – linguistic, digital, identity, ethical literacy. Often when it comes to ‘digital’ we immediately fall under the spell of the tyranny of the urgent. Therefore, in what ways can we adopt a more ‘patient’ or ‘reflective’ practice with respect to digital?
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