Big Data Ethics in Development Practice

Pulse Lab Jakarta
Jun 9, 2020 · 7 min read

Author: Lama Ahmad, Project Associate

Illustration by Alfian Maulana Latief/Visual Information Designer, Pulse Lab Jakarta
Illustration by Alfian Maulana Latief/Visual Information Designer/Pulse Lab Jakarta

I joined Pulse Lab Jakarta (PLJ) as a Henry Luce Scholar in September of 2019. I was drawn to PLJ because of the team structure, where a technical data science team works alongside a team that focuses on human-centered design and in depth qualitative user research. My interests are in harnessing the power of technology and big data, while preserving the idea that big data technologists must not lose sight of the people and communities affected by their technological innovations. During my time at the lab, I’ve learned that the development and humanitarian sectors are some of the most critical arenas in which these conversations need to be happening. Harnessing big data technologies has the potential to create unprecedented impact and generate new insights to address a myriad of development challenges. At the same time, big data processes carry risks of exacerbating inequalities, perpetuating stereotypes, and automating biased decision making. In this blog post, I will reflect on my learnings about the application of technology and big data ethics in practice which I’ve garnered through a variety of projects, conversations, and experiences at PLJ.

Ethical Frameworks and Big Data for Humanitarian Response

Critical discussions on the application of big data for development and humanitarian response have been central to PLJ’s mission and influence how the team undertakes new research initiatives. As the lab continues to develop partnerships and explore solutions in that area, I saw an opportunity for addressing a gap in the technology literature or ethical guidelines. There has been a rapid increase in the development of principles and frameworks related to the ethics of artificial intelligence (AI), but they often take a top-down approach and are distanced from specific use cases and contexts. There is an interest in understanding how organisations can develop AI-powered technology or employ AI for the public good and maximising its benefits while minimising the risks and harms that can come along with its use. For example, questions of accountability and fairness are salient when considering the application of AI technology to humanitarian response. Ethical dilemmas that are posed by a data-powered humanitarian response platform might entail questions about who is prioritised for receiving aid and why? How are people prioritised, and when?

With the help of some members of the lab, I wrote a concept note for testing an ethical framework towards the development of a humanitarian response platform. The concept note brought out some important ideas and made a compelling case for why an organisation such as PLJ is optimally positioned to be thinking about the importance of ethical technology in a very intentional manner. First is the access to contextualised and localised knowledge, which is critical for developing solutions that take into consideration the specific needs and systems in a particular socio-economic-geographical location. Second is the network of partnerships and stakeholders that PLJ has built relationships and trust with in Indonesia and the region. A vital component of ethics is creating and enabling an ecosystem that prioritises taking actions that minimises harms and puts beneficiaries at the centre of the solution. Finally, the unique vantage point of thinking about ethics as an active inquiry for ongoing projects brings about lessons and challenges that may be forgotten about in a retrospective ethical analysis. As PLJ moves forward, the concept note can serve as a starting point for testing ethical frameworks on a variety of projects.

Mapping Ethics and Privacy for COVID-19 Response

When the world was hit by the global COVID-19 pandemic, PLJ, like many other development organisations, needed to shift its workload to exploring solutions and assistance opportunities for the COVID-19 response. The power of rapid access to data points through mobile phones to design response strategies such as contact tracing and quarantine enforcement again presented important ethical questions, including a focus on the ethics related to data privacy.

I collaborated with one of my teammates to conduct an in-depth literature review and synthesised insights about data protection and privacy for COVID-19 responses. We compiled existing data privacy laws and regulations in Indonesia, identified opportunities and challenges areas for data privacy in the global COVID-19 response landscape, and summarised learnings about privacy from parallel cases such as the Ebola virus.

Similar to humanitarian response or natural disaster technologies, timeliness is a crucial factor in the design of health related technology and response to a crisis such as COVID-19. There is a balance to be struck between the urgent and effective implementation of robust data usage, and the privacy of individuals and institutions. One example of that balance might be taking into consideration the value and limitations of an informed, opt-in consent model.

While collaboration and developing solutions that are widely applicable are significant and may be necessary, it is important not to neglect critical reflection and lessons learned from others who are tackling the issue in different contexts.

Reporting failures and inefficiencies is as important as understanding opportunities and successes. Sociocultural and political nuances also need to be taken into consideration, because the efficacy of one solution that may entail trust in certain institutions within a particular context may not be applicable in another.

By monitoring global solutions while being mindful of contextual differences, and drawing lessons from global privacy recommendations by reputable groups as a result of COVID-19 as well as parallel cases, we can be better prepared and develop privacy conscious responses for COVID-19 and future crisis scenarios.

Ethics by Design in the Social Systems Team

I took part in a recent project undertaken by the Social Systems team that involved field work with community members and local governments, and partnering with several stakeholders for the end goal of using data to build an informative platform. My participation in the project led me to reflect on how to better incorporate ethics by design into our team’s research process. In the past, the Social Systems team has referred to IDEO’s Little Book of Design Research Ethics when preparing to undertake field work or user research. I was curious about how research design ethical toolkits or frameworks might help our team to consider new ways of incorporating ethics by design.

With the help of my teammates, I put together an internal workshop that focused on retrospectively analysing our recent project, and asking the question: how might we ensure ethical values are incorporated into our research design? We rewinded our mindsets back to the research design phase of our project, and critically analysed our design goal — what was the problem we were really trying to solve? For whom? And why? We then collectively decided on some key service values that we would like to guide our process, which included physical and mental well-being, trust, transparency, responsibility, and safety. To make these values more practical, we matched values to specific action items at each phase in the project timeline.

The core of applied ethics is conversation, and the workshop generated interesting dialogue and reflections about the things our team does well and the ways in which we could improve upon how we intentionally articulate and incorporate ethics by design into our work. One of the most interesting takeaways from our workshop is that ethics by design for a research process has several layers that need to be considered. The most salient is the ethical implications on beneficiaries, but ethical principles also come into play when navigating expectations and relationships with partners and stakeholders, as well as intra-team processes and communication. Viewing an ethical approach as a holistic process allows for a gradual culture shift that encourages discussions around difficult questions and processes that are both visible and invisible, as well as addressing challenges that are both seen and unforeseen.

What have I learned and where do we go from here?

Taking abstracted ideas of ethics and applying them in the real world is a dialogue and a negotiation. People will bring different perspectives and incentives to the table, and resources such as time, money, and impact are weighted differently at different moments.

The difficulty lies in the fact that integrating ethics by design is deliberately not taking the path of least resistance, and asking questions that are often uncomfortable and sometimes giving pause to the work that seems non-stop.

In the day to day, realities of developing solutions, responding to urgent requests, and doing well-intentioned work can often cause ethics to be cast aside as a sideline conversation. In small, fast-paced organisations, it may not be feasible to bring onboard someone who is specifically dedicated to ensuring ethical compliance at all times, but identifying and enabling the champions of ethics within teams is an important step to take in the direction of ethically-conscious services. While the broad, abstract vision of ethical design can seem daunting and overwhelming — it does not need to be an all or nothing change. Small, incremental steps and engaging in reflection that is well documented over time allows habits and processes to be built at all levels of the team, instead of being concentrated and imposed by a small group of individuals. Although my time at the lab is coming to an end, my hope is that the conversations that I’ve had throughout my time at the lab will be seeds that continue to grow and develop at PLJ.


I can’t thank my colleagues and the leadership team at PLJ enough for the opportunity to explore, write, facilitate, and ask difficult and critical questions around the idea of ethics and the work that is done at PLJ. I have learned so much from all of them and I look forward to seeing the ways that PLJ will grow and develop in its next phase.

Pulse Lab Jakarta is grateful for the generous support from the Government of Australia

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