In Digital Development, Responsible Data Use Must Be A Priority

Since we were founded, almost five years ago, one of the central tasks of the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) has been delivering prototypes and replicable models for digital data for development. Our donors and colleagues in the digital development community believed that public and private sector data, remixed using new techniques, could enable low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) to do more with less – to make evidence-based decisions using insights that could not be gleaned in more traditional ways.

So, DIAL set out to find out whether it was possible to put together the partnerships, analytics and government buy-in to make this type of data helpful for policymakers, as they work to deploy scarce resources and support vulnerable populations on the move. We are now several years into this work in several countries – you can read about our Malawi program, which supports the government to allocate scarce health resources where they can reach the most people, in this technical paper.

‘Responsible data’ as a concept describes the duty we all have to respect people’s rights over their data, and behave transparently and openly in our data work. Recently, I joined a panel at the NetHope Global Summit, a convening that brings implementors together to discuss how to use technology to make powerful progress against the world’s most pressing challenges. In the session, “How to Use Data Responsibly in International Development”, we discussed how to prioritize use of data, proactively analyzing the potential benefits and risks to data subjects and data holders; and industry best practices for data management and data security. The panel also highlighted existing resources, including USAID’s recent Considerations for Using Data Responsibly at USAID and GIZ’s Responsible Data Principles. We would also point to the comprehensive list of resources compiled by a community of activists and practitioners in the space, spearheaded by the Engine Room, in the Responsible Data Hackpad.

Our responsible data use practices

At DIAL, we believe that using private sector data to help governments make decisions could help a great many people, and potentially, help the international community to meet our sustainable development goals. It is incumbent upon us to try to leverage the great advances technology is making, and the vast insights into people’s needs, movements, and habits that private sector data can provide us. Yet, it is equally important that we do so responsibly and safely. The basic human rights of the individual producing the data must be at the heart of our work. We must come together to solve a simple question: how do you balance the need to reach all people, with the need to avoid causing them harm?

We are currently finalizing internal guidance for our practice around responsible data use, grounded in three principles: transparency and accountability; demystifying the technology; and weighing the risks and benefits carefully. We believe this walks a difficult line between uncritically embracing data for development and minimizing the use of data for fear of causing harm. We believe we have a responsibility to help deliver services in a transparent way and put people’s rights over their data at the center of our approach.


At DIAL, we have worked carefully for five years with governments, regulators, telecoms companies, and data analytics specialists to explore ways to safely and anonymously layer traditional and non-traditional population density data to help allocate scarce health infrastructure resources. We believe that there is more work to be done in this area, to scale this approach at the country level so that development efforts can benefit from the latest information. A key part of doing this responsibly, for us, is to build digital capacity across government and civil society, to strengthen accountability mechanisms and ensure that the use of data in this area can be held to account by the data subjects themselves – the citizens.

While we agree that more guidance, more evidence and more debate is critical, we believe that it is possible to leverage these types of approaches responsibly, if we ground our work in local governance. In the coming months, we will publish our Responsible Data Use Practices, and we have already released a comparative analysis of national regulation in six countries. In FY20, we will transition custody of the data models for the Malawi program to a Government institution to enhance the replicability and routine use of data for public decision making across development sectors.

The digital ecosystem needs to come together to agree to standards, learn from our practice and help advocate for practice grounded in effective management of risk and locally-owned governance. DIAL will continue to work to bring the community together and create tools to improve practice and advance standards around data use. The time is now to do this work because in the information age, technology moves quickly. The creation, use, and harnessing of data is happening now – so it is up to us to work together with governments and citizens to ensure that these efforts are informed, responsible and safe.