Two years ago, in pre-pandemic times, we gathered for the last in-person MERL Tech conference in Washington, DC. During that conference, the idea was born to create the MERL Center — a community that would collaborate to develop resources about the intersection of MERL and open source.
Since then, a vibrant community has coalesced under the leadership of Mala Kumar, GitHub’s Director of Tech for Social Good. More than 40 members from five continents contribute through the community, coalescing around content that draws from their global professional experience in disciplines such as international development, public health, and education. Many MERL Center community members have come from the MERL Tech community. Collaborating via the MERL Center has enabled MERL Tech practitioners of all levels of technology capacity to engage on GitHub and break down professional silos.
This week, the community launched its new MERL Center website, which houses a range of content at the intersection of MERL and open source. Users of the site can filter MERL-related content by workflow or task (e.g., data visualization) or by content type (e.g., guides and case studies). Guides discuss important topics related to MERL and open source, such as the pros and cons of open data. Case studies outline specific examples of using open source solutions for MERL purposes, or MERL aspects of open source solutions. The site links out to the MERL Center repository on GitHub as well. It will eventually include a “project bank” of work that is ongoing and needs community support.
We’re excited to share this important resource with the wider MERL Tech community, and we hope that you will check it out, get involved, and let the MERL Center know what other content or guidance would be helpful for you in your work!
For this year’s MERL Tech DC, we teamed up to do a session on Responsible Data. Based on feedback from last year, we knew that people wanted less discussion on why ethics, privacy and security are important, and more concrete tools, tips and templates. Though it’s difficult to offer specific do’s and don’ts, since each situation and context needs individualized analysis, we were able to share a lot of the resources that we know are out there.
To kick off the session, we quickly explained what we meant by Responsible Data. Then we handed out some cards from Oxfam’s Responsible Data game and asked people to discuss their thoughts in pairs. Some of the statements that came up for discussion included:
Being responsible means we can’t openly share data – we have to protect it
We shouldn’t tell people they can withdraw consent for us to use their data when in reality we have no way of doing what they ask
Biometrics are a good way of verifying who people are and reducing fraud
Following the card game we asked people to gather around 4 tables with a die and a print out of the data lifecycle where each phase corresponded to a number (Planning = 1, collecting = 2, storage = 3, and so on…). Each rolled the die and, based on their number, told a “data story” of an experience, concern or data failure related to that phase of the lifecycle. Then the group discussed the stories.
For our last activity, each of us took a specific pack of tools, templates and tips and rotated around the 4 tables to share experiences and discuss practical ways to move towards stronger responsible data practices.
Responsible data policy, practices and evaluation of their roll-out
Oxfam released its Responsible Program Data Policy in 2015. Since then, they have carried out six pilots to explore how to implement the policy in a variety of countries and contexts. Emily shared information on these these pilots and the results of research carried out by the Engine Room called Responsible Data at Oxfam: Translating Oxfam’s Responsible Data Policy into practice, two years on. The report concluded that the staff that have engaged with Oxfam’s Responsible Data Policy find it both practically relevant and important. One of the recommendations of this research showed that Oxfam needed to increase uptake amongst staff and provide an introductory guide to the area of responsible data.
In response, Oxfam created the Responsible Data Management pack, (available in English, Spanish, French and Arabic), which included the game that was played in today’s session along with other tools and templates. The card game introduces some of the key themes and tensions inherent in making responsible data decisions. The examples on the cards are derived from real experiences at Oxfam and elsewhere, and they aim to generate discussion and debate. Oxfam’s training pack also includes other tools, such as advice on taking photos, a data planning template, a poster of the data lifecycle and general information on how to use the training pack. Emily’s session also encouraged discussion with participants about governance and accountability issues like who in the organisation manages responsible data and how to make responsible data decisions when each context may require a different action.
Nina shared early results of four case studies mSTAR is conducting together with Sonjara for USAID. The case studies are testing a draft set of responsible data guidelines, determining whether they are adequate for ‘on the ground’ situations and if projects find them relevant, useful and usable. The guidelines were designed collaboratively, based on a thorough review and synthesis of responsible data practices and policies of USAID and other international development and humanitarian organizations. To conduct the case studies, Sonjara, Nina and other researchers visited four programs which are collecting large amounts of potentially sensitive data in Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda. The researchers interviewed a broad range of stakeholders and looked at how the programs use, store, and manage personally identifiable data (PII). Based on the research findings, adjustments are being made to the guidelines. It is anticipated that they will be published in October.
Linda mentioned that a literature review of responsible data policy and practice has been done as part of the above mentioned mSTAR project (which she also worked on). The literature review will provide additional resources and analysis, including an overview of the core elements that should be included in organizational data guidelines, an overview of USAID policy and regulations, emerging legal frameworks such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and good practice on how to develop guidelines in ways that enhance uptake and use. The hope is that both the Responsible Data Literature Review and the of Responsible Data Guidelines will be suitable for adopting and adapting by other organizations. The guidelines will offer a set of critical questions and orientation, but that ethical and responsible data practices will always be context specific and cannot be a “check-box” exercise given the complexity of all the elements that combine in each situation.
Check out this responsible data resource list, which includes additional tools, tips and templates. It was developed for MERL Tech London in February 2017 and we continue to add to it as new documents and resources come out. After a few years of advocating for ‘responsible data’ at MERL Tech to less-than-crowded sessions, we were really excited to have a packed room and high levels of interest this year!
We’ll be experimenting with a monthly round-up of MERL Tech related content (bi-weekly if there’s enough to fill a post). Let us know if it’s useful! We aim to keep it manageable and varied, rather than a laundry list of every possible thing. The format, categories, and topics will evolve as we see how it goes and what the appetite is.
If you have anything you’d like to share or see featured, feel free to send it on over or post on Twitter using the #MERLTech hashtag.
Series on data management (DAI) covering 1) planning and collecting data; 2) managing and storing data; and 3) getting value and use out of the data that’s collected through analysis and visualization.