How the Digital Principles Serve as a Guide to Better Solutions

For over a decade, the Principles for Digital Development have helped development practitioners enhance the design and efficacy of tech-enabled projects and programs, evolving alongside present needs and new innovations. In the Digital Impact Alliance’s (DIAL) role as steward of the Principles, we have aimed to highlight how the Digital Principles are relevant and useful throughout a project’s lifecycle.  

In recent months, COVID-19 has massively impacted countless development programs and projects, with organizations scrambling to fulfill deliverables while also determining how to appropriately pivot their work to respond to the pandemic. As a result, the development sector has been overwhelmed by new resources and proposed solutions that promise to curb the spread of COVID-19 and provide more data for better decision making.  

Often, more solutions don’t mean better solutions. The Digital Principles expose critical issues such as resource duplication, privacy and security, and proper data use. The initial purpose of the Digital Principles has become much more cogent during COVID-19: How do we ensure that technology solutions do not exacerbate problems and inequalities? 

It’s a uniquely challenging, yet promising time to work in international development. We now can remain digitally connected and access real-time information and data, allowing us to quickly coordinate and collaborate from our homes.  

It’s easier to integrate the “Be Collaborative” Principle to share information, insights, strategies, and resources across projects, organizations, and sectors, which has been useful in increasing efficiency and impact in the COVID-19 response. For example, late last month there was global and cross-sectoral participation during the virtual launch of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator. The combined powers of the global vaccine alliance, governments, and biopharmaceutical industry contributed support for producing diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines to save lives.  

DIAL also relies on cross-sector collaboration to enhance our work. Over the past five years, the team has convened governments, regulators, NGOs, and the private sector to develop digital tools to improve public services. Considering COVID-19, the team leveraged those multi-stakeholder partnerships to collaborate on solutions. From setting up mobile messaging capabilities to using mobile network data to support decision making in Malawi and Mozambique, collaborative partnerships have enabled DIAL to facilitate effective COVID-19 responses.  

While the Digital Principles advocate for strong collaboration like this, they also urge us to consider risks and unintended consequences. As we share information and propose solutions to battle the current pandemic, privacy and security advocates have raised concerns over data collection and sharing practices as well as population surveillance. The Principle “Address Privacy and Security” advocates for careful reflection of what data is collected, and how it is acquired, used, stored, and shared.  

Yet, privacy and security are particularly difficult to guarantee at this time because the lines can be blurred between public interest and individual privacy. The pandemic is a watershed moment for the extension of government and non-government emergency powers to access, analyze and act on private-sector data.  

To support the COVID-19 response, many countries are currently using mobile network operator data to understand mobility patterns. However, this poses potential civil liberty violations, such as invasive government surveillance and endangerment of vulnerable people, both now and in the future.

DIAL works with governments to ensure that the benefits of using data outweigh potential privacy and security risk. We work alongside them to promote safe and responsible data use to enhance their ability to deliver public services to those who need it most. That is why where mobile network operator data is being used, DIAL recommends that personal data must never be shared in its raw form and any data containing personal data should be anonymized and aggregated before processing. These practices ensure that the analytics that are being used to support the COVID-19 response uphold strong privacy and security standards. 

The global mobilization that is underway to tackle COVID-19 has been powerful, and there is a lot that can be learned when we are open and collaborative. We know that information changes lives and in the case of COVID-19, we have seen how information can save lives. The plethora of information also poses challenges, such as heightened risk of misinformation, uninformed policy decisions, or the dangers to security and privacy. The Principles for Digital Development not only help us create solutions but help us weigh the benefits and potential consequences of these solutions, while keeping individual rights front and center.