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Why invest time and effort in talking about data? (Part 2)

This is the second in a series of blogs sharing lessons learned from a collaboration between DataShift and the SPEAK! campaign and the resulting conversations about data management practices among diverse organisations working to overcome social divisions around the world. The series aims to show that sound data management is built on common sense and available to everyone, no matter their level of technical expertise; to get readers thinking and talking about data; and to encourage conscious decisions about its creation, use, protection and disposal. Click here to read the first blog post.

Data Journey Talks: Why?

Time and resources are stretched. Why invest time in conversations about data that at first glance may not seem your highest priority? First and foremost, we share a responsibility to mitigate the risks that come with careless use of data. Investing time in assessing the risks helps to make more informed decisions about what data to publish, and how to protect non-published data from loss or attack.

During SPEAK! 2018, campaign partners organised dialogue events to overcome division around the world. SPEAK! staff used a series of open-ended questions to get partners thinking and talking about more responsible data use.

What are the risks?

Data published by organisations in reports or other materials can be damaging, especially if consent was not properly obtained to do so. Even if not made public or used maliciously, lost, accidentally changed or deleted data can obstruct workflows and prevent organisations from meeting their commitments. Data can be used maliciously to target the data subjects.

Unexpected positives

In addition to the responsibility to minimise these risks, there are added bonuses that can emerge from discussions around data. Firstly, media coverage of sophisticated cyber-attacks can be overwhelming, giving the impression that data issues are dauntingly complex and causing organisations to disengage. Practical conversations with real-life examples help to demystify data, put the risks in context, and build confidence to make informed decisions that minimise those risks.

Talking about data management doesn’t have to mean tearing up current policies, buying expensive software or taking up disproportionate amounts of time and energy. Instead, it will often validate existing practices, empower partners to identify areas where changes should be made, and make informed and deliberate decisions to do so. It also leads to collecting leaner and more targeted data in manageable quantities, improving efficiency and use of staff time.

For example, our conversations around data management with an organisation working with Syrian refugee women in Turkey served to validate many of the informal policies they had already developed to protect their beneficiaries’ data, such as only providing access to the organisation’s files to volunteers for specific purposes. Only a few small improvements were needed, but the conversation reassured staff that they were already ‘doing it right’ and made them more confident in their ability to improve where needed.

Before you get to the data…

Before diving into detailed discussions about data with your partners, consider your approach to the conversation. The human factor is vital in bringing people on board with steps to improve data management, and in instilling a sense of agency over decisions: if the partner feels ownership over their decisions, they will be much more likely to commit to and follow through on them than where they perceive a policy as being imposed on them.

  • Self-reflect – Ask yourself the same questions you plan to ask your partners. Taking time to think about your practices will help you understand your partners better as they deal with the same questions.
  • Consider power imbalances – If you are a funder, or you are in any other position of power in comparison to your partner, your questions about data may be perceived as interrogatory rather than supportive and put people on the defensive. 
  • Be transparent – Explain upfront why you are asking questions and explain to partners how you use their data. You may need to refer partners to an expert in some cases (please email us at datashift@civicus.org if you would like to be referred to an expert).
  • Trust is crucial – We found that partners with whom our staff had already built a trusting relationship over time were much more receptive to improving data practices with our support.

The next in our series of blogs will start exploring the questions we used to get people talking about data.

These blogs are based on the publication How to talk about data? Learnings on responsible data for social change from the SPEAK! campaign, and this work was made possible through a Digital Impact Grant by the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. 

Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians cook together during a SPEAK! event in Lebanon. Photo credit: URDA