Ethical, Safe, and Effective Digital Data Use in Civil Society

Lucy Bernholz
Sep 23, 2015 · 8 min read

By: Lucy Bernholz, Rob Reich, Emma Saunders-Hastings, and Emma Leeds Armstrong

How do we use digital data ethically, safely, and effectively in civil society? We have developed three early principles for consideration:

Introduction

Data scientists have a wide set of skills at their disposal, including statistical analysis, algorithms, mathematics, machine learning, visualization, API and large dataset management, and experience with many software programs such as R, Hadoop, Java and Python. Nonprofit professionals have a similarly wide-ranging skill set that can include background training in the social sciences, community organizing, or many other fields, on-the-ground experience in psychology, counter-bias work, financial oversight, leadership development, advocacy, constituent and program management. In a vastly oversimplified way, data scientists are good at manipulating and analyzing information and nonprofit professionals are good at analyzing people and manipulating systems. How do we bring these two forces together in ways that ethically respect the different types of expertise, make good use of their complementary contributions, and improve services to the organization’s constituents?

How the Work Gets Done — Process Maps

Not surprisingly, different intermediaries interact with nonprofits in slightly different ways, although each engagement has several common steps. Overall, the group generated three different process maps, categorized by whether the work was initiated by the data intermediary, (DI), by the nonprofit, (NPO), or by some form of open challenge methodology (Challenge). Here, in brief, are the common stages of engagement across the three types.

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What are the ethical tensions and where do they reveal themselves?

The most frequently identified points of tension, requiring compromise or balancing acts are listed below and clustered by the stakeholders (assumed) most likely to raise the issue:

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Outcomes

Many of the issues that these partnerships raise are familiar from other domains of work. Protecting the privacy of personally identifiable information, for example, is a responsibility felt by organizations of all kinds. We must place the lessons learned from this working group into the specific context of civil society as a source for the voluntary use of private resources toward public benefit. This allows us to derive specific recommendations and framing assumptions for the practical engagements between data intermediaries and nonprofits. These principles may well extend to other forms of digital data use in civil society.

DRAFT — ITERATE AND IMPROVE — and share share share

  1. Checklist for NGOs and external data consultants
  2. Guidelines for NGOs and external data consultants

Digital Civil Society

The Digital Civil Society Lab investigates opportunities…

Lucy Bernholz

Written by

Philanthropy wonk

Digital Civil Society

The Digital Civil Society Lab investigates opportunities and challenges for civil society to thrive in the digital age, across four domains: technology, organizations, policy, and social norms. This publication highlights some of the driving questions our research team is asking.

Lucy Bernholz

Written by

Philanthropy wonk

Digital Civil Society

The Digital Civil Society Lab investigates opportunities and challenges for civil society to thrive in the digital age, across four domains: technology, organizations, policy, and social norms. This publication highlights some of the driving questions our research team is asking.

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