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Transparency, Inclusivity and Accountability in times of COVID-19 home page

COVID-19 and Data Rights

In April 2020, the world had just started to really come to terms with the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most international travel had ceased. Social and economic lockdowns were starting to take shape and be implemented around the world. Hasty emergency legislation was being passed in many countries to create a legal basis to tackle this unprecedented global health crisis. In other countries, actions were taken by decree without consultation or legal grounding.

Regardless of the precise circumstances, one of the things that we all had in common was the dawning realisation of just how powerful the digital devices in our pockets are. Our phones could not only make calls, send messages or be used to browse the web, but could be used by public health authorities to track population movements and model COVID-19 transmission. Digital tools could also be used to prompt revolutions in telemedicine and service delivery that experts had previously thought would take decades to play out.

Benefits AND Risks of Digital Data

However, one of the hard truths about digital and data policy is that for every positive application of a digital, data-driven technology, there is at least one potential harm that has to be addressed — sometimes there are many. The same technology that can be used to trace COVID-19 transmission through populations can be used to enforce curbs on freedom of movement, and not always in pursuit of a legitimate aim such as pandemic control. The applications and platforms that are used to deliver telemedicine or conference calls raise serious issues around data protection and individual privacy.

All told, the inherent inequities and biases, gaps in governance and public oversight, and asymmetries in power between those with access to digital tools and data and those without, that existed before the pandemic have been transferred into the digital pandemic response.

Moreover, the nature of the crisis has raised the stakes and revealed an urgent need for better data governance in Africa and beyond given the severity of restrictions placed on whole countries’ populations and the degree to which we have come to rely on digital, data-driven tools.

Image from Open Institute Twitter

Restoring Data Rights with support from COVIDaction

It is within this context that we came up with the idea for #RestoreDataRights. We wanted to start a grassroots movement that spoke to Africans’ rights directly. A movement that didn’t try to reinvent the wheel but rather was designed to remind policy-makers, experts and citizens that data policy needs to be driven by the same principles of transparency, inclusivity and accountability that we use to govern any other policy area.

So, with support from COVIDAction, together with Amnesty International Kenya, The Paradigm Initiative, Media Rights Agenda, Africa Digital Rights Hub, the Collaboration on ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), and Professor Tom Moultrie at Cape Town University, we established #RestoreDataRights and drafted the #RestoreDataRights Declaration, centred on the three principles of transparency, inclusivity and accountability. launch page

In November 2020 we held a virtual event to launch the Declaration and formally went ‘live’. In 2021, as we move forward as a movement, we want to work closely with those who were involved in our launch event.

Partnering with Existing Initiatives

We want to partner with existing initiatives such as the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms, which is already doing the groundwork on so many of these issues, to amplify their work and find new points of synergy. We want to complement initiatives such as those led by the UN Economic Commission for Africa and Global Partnership for Sustainable Development data that are promoting public-private efforts to use data in ways that support decision-making. We want to learn from experts in countries such as Mauritius where the Data Protection Commissioner has been working hard to set an example of how data can be used responsibly to combat COVID-19 in transparent, inclusive and accountable ways; amplifying their learnings and helping others to improve.

Ultimately, in order for us to work together with these different interest groups to forge common intentions, our actions must be founded in trust. In relation to COVID-19, to achieve this trust and to help extrapolate it to the general public, as Nnenna Nwakanma from the Web Foundation put it during our launch event on 11 November 2020, “we trust when we see, and we trust when actions are transparent.” We know that our movement to #RestoreDataRights will have been successful when we start to hear more people saying that they trust that their data is being used responsibly to defeat the pandemic.

Authors: Al Kags, Founder, Open Institute and Tom Orrell, Managing Director, DataReady

About the FCDO COVIDaction Data Challenge

The Data Challenge is part of the COVIDaction programme, funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO) across key thematic areas of oxygen, data, resilient health, and local production. The programme is a partnership between the UK FCDO’s Frontier Technology Hub, Global Disability Innovation Hub (GDI Hub), UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering, along with other collaborators.



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Siobhan Wilson Green

Siobhan Wilson Green

COVIDaction Data Challenge co-lead, Lead of Digital & Data Governance Transformation (DDGT) portfolio at IMCWorldwide