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Posted by on Mar 6, 2016

Privacy and ICT4D: Mutually Exclusive for the Greater Good?

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Reposting this from Panoply Digital.

I was reading What’s needed to put more people on the map? by Catherine Cheney from Devex and, having been a fan of mapping for development for years, found myself agreeing with much of it. Catherine documents initiatives around the world in the wake of disasters or emergencies, from Haiti, Tanzania, and beyond, across projects like Field Papers (for printing maps from OpenStreetMap), OpenMapKit, and beyond. Essentially, she is making the larger case for mapping as means of identifying the underrepresented or the non-existent, data-wise.

All are direct responses to significant need, particularly in the balance between commercial and non-profit initiatives and particularly again in the developing world. While I applauded Google Maps and Google Earth for providing a mass means of seeing the world and particular pockets of the population in new ways, I also applauded the non-proprietary alternatives that arose as a result. We need both. I have used some of these in the past for academic projects (particularly OpenStreetMap) and have enjoyed using others for development projects or research like Ushahidi and Crowdmap. They all serve a purpose and all address a need.

It was in the following quote that I began to think of a counterpoint to this narrative of mapping=absolute good, an ethical knee jerk reflex that I can’t shake even when I work in places where mapping is a direct path towards more efficient distributions of aid, more effective governance or distribution of social services, greater use of energy grids and power supplies and on and on.

“If you’re not on a map, you just simply don’t exist in many senses,” Tyler Radford, executive director of the nonprofit humanitarian organization Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, told Devex. “Having tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people just appear as a dot with no level of detail beyond that continues this marginalization of people all over the world who are living in the shadows.”

A dot with no level of detail suggests that the detail is necessary and therefore permissible. While I agree with most of that, and agree that we in the development field are constantly balancing pragmatism with idealism, that doesn’t mean I can ignore the impact of that collected data nor the lack of input the individual in question had about the data being collected about them. I can’t ignore that the discourses of the development field contribute to this ethical quandary, even propogate: openness, transparency, and accountability. It is hard to counter, or even question, the utility of mapping in ICT4D. But there are ethical questions here regardless. I have written about the ethics of mobile technology before, both here and here and mapping is an extension of this precisely as it redefines the permissiveness of privacy in society. The ethical questions as I see them are:

  1. Are we providing the choice to remain anonymous?
  2. Are we speaking on behalf (paternalism) of those who “simply don’t exist” by surfacing them through data collected rather than contributed?
  3. Are the pragmatics of development and privacy mutually exclusive?

Clearly there are others who share these concerns such as the Personal Data and Privacy Working Group and there excellent and utilitarian post on Baking Privacy into ICT4D. In it, they suggest that funders need to know that all ICT4D project are data projects and all have data protection implications. All those working on ICT4D projects need to know that often developing countries don’t have the same legislative protections of data and privacy, but that doesn’t unbind you from your own data protection standards, like the UK’s Data Protection Act (1998). We must be reasonable and pragmatic, of course, but working in a country other than your own doesn’t free you from your ethical commitments to the people we serve and should protect.

This is a long way from the original point of Catherine Cheney’s article, which I agree with. Mapping has been a development tool of great importance and will remain so as the technology grows apace. But the point is that the ethics of all of this must evolve with the technological landscape; these are discussions we must have in parallel with the projects being undertaken and the impact being evidenced. I would love to see some more co-collaboration on what privacy or the ethics of this looks like with the people actually being most affected by it. What is privacy to them? Does remaining anonymous provide any advantage? What do they want done with their data? A research project for another day.

Some excellent resources provided by the Personal Data and Privacy Working Group

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