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Resources for Responsible Data Use in Humanitarian Action

Field Notes

Lucy Bernholz spotlights the efforts of the International Data Responsibility Group and shares related resources for advancing ethical data use practices in the humanitarian and social sectors.

Humanitarian aid and disaster response groups are regularly faced with the promise and peril of digital data and infrastructure. The opportunities to use real time satellite imagery, to improve communications in dangerous situations, and to experiment with social media feeds for information on the fly are tempting. At the same time, the ethical demands to “do no harm,” the unclear boundaries of digital data systems, and its life-threatening nature fills the work with peril.

Several years ago scholars and practitioners from the sectors began working together to better identify the parameters of responsible data use and to share tools for working this way. When and how should crisis responders turn to new technologies – be they drone-based delivery systems or photographs enhanced with several layers of quantitative and other data? What is the responsible choice – to take a chance on a digital tool that can bring new insights in a dangerous situation or to step more carefully out of concern for longer-term harms?

The International Data Responsibility Group (IDRG) – and its annual conferences – try to address the ethical questions through cross-sector action. The IDRG includes activists, technologists, scholars, and nonprofit leaders who regularly identify new challenges, draft technical or organizational reports, and share their work openly for others to use.

The second annual International Data Responsibility Conference was held this past February in the Hague. It included workshops on data sharing across sectors, data governance challenges, and the revelation of the The Bigger Picture. This last initiative is a collaboration with the World Press Photo Foundation, bringing together photography, data analytics, and storytelling about complex global issues.

There are several partners and supporting efforts to the IDRG that may be of interest to MFG readers. These include the Centre for Innovation at Leiden University, the Data Governance Project – which includes the World Economic Forum, NYU GovLab, and Leiden University’s Peace Informatics Lab – and projects of the Engine Room.

These overlapping networks are addressing digital systems and governance for advocacy, activism, human rights work, humanitarian aid, and disaster response. Each provides materials and resources that may be of interest to the broader MFG community. This includes the recent OCHA think brief, Building Data Responsibility into Humanitarian Action, which was co-authored by the Centre for Innovation at Leiden University, the GovLab, and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and which MFG profiled here.