The Criticality of Inserting Data Ethics in Development

The fourth industrial revolution has taken place, and people from diverse upbringings, cultures as well as socio-economic backgrounds have required to adapt in new ways than ever before. According to Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, the fourth industrial revolution is fundamentally different. ‘‘It is characterized by a range of new technologies that are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds, impacting all disciplines, economies and industries, and even challenging ideas about what it means to be human’’ (Schwab, K. 2020). The potential for interconnectivity and the ability to increasingly share information in real time is unprecedented, and also critical to the development of nations. Key challenges to address include the accurate dissemination of information, solving issues around digital infrastructure and tackling brain drain to encourage borderless international cooperation and global engagement. The reality of digital development and specifically the datafication of all interactions (as well as the private and public accumulation of data) have profound consequences for international development (course presentation slides, 2020). Data ethicality is increasingly becoming a key topic of focus and largely brought forward by the EU’s progressive General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) legislation, as well as scandals such as Cambridge Analytica’s influence in the British election process, or the Polar app that exposed U.S. military personal information.

The meaning of data ethics is still contested, but in general it is referred to as ‘‘The responsible and sustainable use of data. It is about doing the right thing for people and society. Data processes should be designed as sustainable solutions benefitting first and foremost humans’’ (Data Ethics EU, 2020). With that in mind it is imperative that both private and public companies, international organizations and governments at large follow and comply with data ethic principles for the prosperity of society as well as to deepen North/South relationships. Artificial intelligence is increasingly making decisions and has become a central focus of public policy efforts worldwide. Governments are central to the debate because they own large amounts of citizen data but also, they are the primary regulating body (or should be) of data collected by public and private institutions alike.

The so-called algorithmic colonization where data is being used and abused by various companies including large tech players is continuing to have a spillover effect into all areas, including not-for-profit and humanitarian work. The humanitarian data management field has been explored in detail, and as detailed by Hugo Slim it is focused on the key principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence (Centre for Humanitarian Data, 2020). Data use in crisis and aid work is as imperative as its use within the private sector. Data humanitarian work can create issues in certain crisis response activities. Based on information collected, organizations can target where and what type of assistance is needed to more detail, yet it can also put communities at risk when they have expressed unfavorable views of local governments, or other groups. Other limitations occur when NGO’s are allowed into a local community, but governments try to limit and focus their data collection to exclude important information pertaining to minorities. Also, at times humanitarian organizations need to partner with private technology companies to build ICT infrastructure which can lead to unnecessary bias and create doubt among different groups. Last but not least, due to the sensitive nature of crisis work, field workers can be put in danger due to local government disagreement of sensitive data encountered.

Yet ICT4D has remained a hopeful area that has yielded positive and encouraging results in the last five to eight years. More than ever we are seeing a change in the humanitarian composition of the workforce, with more scientists being attracted to the sector by the meaningful nature of aid work. There is also a change in dynamic where younger generations with multiple technology skills are bridging the ‘have not’ gap, by inserting coder language that is flat and nonhierarchical and that can be taught to a variety groups. Crowdsourcing has already been applied to large volumes of data and digital humanitarians are offering their time and experience to crisis situations, which not only improves speed and accuracy in the sector, but it focuses on the large majority as opposed to a selected few (such as designated political groups, for example). Many international organizations such as the Centre for Humanitarian Data, created by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) focuses on providing ethical data services (increased data speed and flow), data literacy, data policy and predictive analytics. Their vision according to the website is to ‘‘create a future where all people involved in a humanitarian situation have access to the data they need, when and how they need it, to make responsible and informed decisions’’ (Centre for Humanitarian Data, 2020).

Successful project examples can be seen in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Ebola outbreak project where The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) partnered to better understand community perception of the outbreak. The Humanitarian Data Centre developed a dashboard with a summary of trends, such as key rumors, questions, concerns and provided these to aid workers for a better holistic understanding of the Ebola ecosystem. Another example included the 2016 journey where the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) embarked on a journey to improve information management capabilities of technical platforms. The organizations created an HXL infrastructure where dashboards could test ideas and manage complex data processing without creating new systems. They created templates for national societies to adapt as they saw fit, where societies could be analyzed cross functionally. The result was increased efficiency in relief efforts in the region (Centre for Humanitarian Data, 2020). It should also be stated that complex technology projects are not always necessary in order to create lasting change. Many organizations such as Chariti or ProFund make use of available ICT tools and channels such as WordPress and Wix (website builders) to communicate and raise charitable donations for key issues. Such websites are user intuitive as well as easy to access and use. There are limitations however, such as dependency on a provider, exclusive collaboration with selected platforms (such as Facebook and YouTube), as well as limited access to data captured (such as limited free access to Google Analytics). The main benefit is undoubtedly the amplification of information to millions of people. Search Engine Optimization has greatly helped with amplification efforts by using backlinks and other similar tactics. Websites can also serve as blogs where information can be shared and debated, as well as to feature subject matter experts to increase knowledge amongst readers. Forums and intranets are similar useful ICT platforms for communication. Perhaps one of the most effective communication tools is the mobile phone where apps can be accessed and used in real time, which in turn can be key to humanitarian crisis news.

Social media is a powerful ICT platform that can be used to share both websites and blogs. The most successful and powerful social media tools for development include Facebook and Twitter. It can be argued that aid organizations have become heavily dependent on these platforms to share crisis information. COVID-19 is the most recent example, where Facebook provides a daily update of the pandemic in your area. The information helps not only inform people but prepare people for upcoming governmental and organizational changes (such as advice from the World Health Organization). Other ICT tools that have greatly benefit humanitarianism includes survey tools (SurveyMonkey) where focus groups can be interviewed, or random data samples collected at large. It is important to note that traditional forms of ICT such as television and media are still key to target diverse demographic groups. Journalistic information can be incredibly valid as it is thought to be credible and research-based by the general public. Programs such as BBC Media Action provide real depiction of communities around the world and how they live, giving access to local communities in the global South.

On the other hand, technology and big data has led to the creation of the so-called algorithmic colonization. Big data players such as Google, Facebook and Amazon have taken over the world of data and thus data has become a valued commodity by the private and public sector, including governmental organizations. It can be argued that control of such information is simply a replication of post-colonial power. Then, Europeans used native people to exploit the land and create dependency, such as The East India company’s exploitation of workers. Similarly, digital colonialism is known as the design of a technology ecosystem that looks to profit only. With time, large companies are creating even more dependency in developing nations by using proprietary software, cloud systems and centralized internet services. Google for example creates ‘must have’ apps such as Google Search, Maps and Gmail to pull consumer data. They then substantially profit when selling data to other enterprises, such as consumer lifestyle information to insurance companies, to name a few. The most concerning issue however is how ill-informed the general public is when it comes to their personal data. The risk is even higher in developing countries where there is a general lack of knowledge and available education on the matter. Poor countries are also overwhelmed with existing technology and do not have the time nor economic resources to develop the resources further, and thus their infrastructure is outdated (course presentation slides, 2020).

It is important to also note that ICT4D research is important for other key societal issues such as involving developing countries in climate change topics, helping better disseminate available health information to the public, or assist in activist campaigns. Social media platforms play a crucial role in helping disseminate societal information as mentioned previously, yet it can be plagued by inaccuracies. Such is the example of the fake news that Facebook allowed during the presidential election campaign of Donald Trump. The availability and overwhelming amount of information is also a critical issue, as audiences don’t know what to focus on, and this can be a particular issue when managing crisis awareness. Media ethicality has also become an issue for ICT as journalists use data in inappropriate ways that mislead the public for personal and company gain.

Data ethics is an imperative component to ICT4D and must be used in parallel to ComDev going forward. The importance of using ‘data for good’ must be applied to all realms of technology use, as well as within the public and private sectors. Good uses of technology include the 2010 Haiti phone information disclosure of 20 mobile companies for the Big Data for Social Good project supported by both the United Nations and the World Bank (Maxmen, A. 2019). The question still remains with researchers however, whether the benefit outweighs the cost and the potential of data leakage. And although only time will tell, implementing an international guideline and body for data ethics that clearly states how public data is collected, stored and consumed is key to development activities. The technology reality and infrastructure of each nation must be clearly outlined as well as current and future needs in order to assist these accurately. Large companies that misuse public data must be heavily fined, and examples must be made so others follow. More importantly, data and technology development should be a mandatory educational tool in schools/graduate institutions, and available to the general public so the topic is largely encouraged and discussed. Legal requirements must continue to become enforced in organizations and transparency provided to all data consumers at all times in an easy and digestible manner. This in turn ensures that audiences understand the role data plays in their lives, more importantly the key knowledge that ‘they are their data’.

In conclusion, the ICT course blog research and study helped students assess the importance of technology and communication tools available in the realm of development. The in-depth understanding of websites, tools and systems in relation to humanitarian discourse assisted in understanding how powerful the tool is if used correctly. It also shed to light the importance of ethical principles when accessing and disseminating data, as well as the increased risk developing nations face in relation to digital consumption and literacy.


Schwab, K. (2020). The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Retrieved from

Centre for Humanitarian Data. (2020). Humanitarian Data Ethics. Retrieved from

Data Ethics EU. (2020). Data Ethics Principles. Retrieved from

Dalmia, N. (2019). The Rise of Data and AI Ethics. Retrieved from

Maxmen, A. (2019). Can Tracking People Through Phone-Call Data Improve Lives? Retrieved from

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