Digital registration in DRC. Kate Shaw/World Vision

Change the way you think (about data)

By Amos Doornbos 

It’s hard to convey how thrilling it is to have more than 900 people gather together to talk passionately, and learn, about data. You really had to be there. But in case you weren’t, here are four reasons why last month’s 11th annual ICT4D conference in Uganda was so important to what we’re trying to do in World Vision – change vulnerable children’s lives.   

  1. We have an identity crisis. We talked a lot about identity this year, which was great, but we know this is a tricky subject but it’s important as it is shaping our global digital future.  The challenge facing us now is to clarify our terms to encourage mutual understanding.  We cannot give someone an identity; humans just are and our individual identity is complex and multi-faceted. 

    The identifiers we use, like Last Mile Mobile Solutions assistance cards issued by World Vision, are identifiers, not someone’s identity. This is also true of a passport, a health card, a library card and even the fact I am the son of a farmer. These identifiers provide insights into who I am, but are not my identity.  Joe Andrieu has written extensively and brilliantly on this topic, and how vital it is to our relationship with those with whom we work. 
    Women in Myanmar with their LMMS assistance cards. Khaing Min Htoo/World Vision
    ​​​​​​Women in Myanmar with their LMMS assistance cards. Khaing Min Htoo/World Vision
  2. Rules versus reality. There is a difference between the IDs – foundational – issued by the government (or by UNHCR in the case of refugees), and functional ones – those issued by us as non-government organisations, and it’s a critical distinction we need to be aware of. Foundation IDs are legal documents, functional IDs can be issued by anyone, tend to perform a function, and are not legal. In our Last Mile Mobile Solutions work, we digitally register beneficiaries and issue them a functional ID just like frequent flyer card or a library card. This is important especially when we are talking with governments; frankly in many cases it is wiser to talk about an assistance card rather than an identity. 
  3. Who decides what is sensitive and valuable? We are all affected by, and aware of, responsible data, data rights, data protection and privacy. These issues are critical and we need to be constantly discussing them, as they are still very driven from an organisational perspective, with us deciding the parameters.  When we talk about sensitive data, we need to create practices that allow people themselves to tell us what they define as sensitive; let’s stop doing it for them.  And while we’re at it, we need to include making the data we collect on them available to them. We need to be enabling them to use the data about them the way they want.  As a number of conference attendees and I discussed, this shift is of primary value to individual (beneficiary) and of less value to the organisation, however technology and willingness means some of our organisations are creating space for us to explore this, which is fantastic. 
    Digital registration in DRC. Kate Shaw/World Vision
    Digital registration in DRC. Kate Shaw/World Vision
  4. Technology is the easy part, change is difficult. We all change at our own pace.  There were likely conversations this year that did not differ from those had at the first conference 11 years ago, but there were also discussions in tiny pockets about things that were extremely cutting edge. This is the nature and the beauty of this type of get together. There was a lot of technology but discussions began to tease out or touch on the non-technological aspects of getting ideas adopted and scaled. As those who know me know, I talk all the time about the non-technical aspects of change that need to happen in order for us to embed technology in our work.  

This was my first time at the ICT4D conference, and pulling it all together is no mean feat – I take my virtual hat off to Catholic Relief Services for doing so this year. I’m looking forward to next year’s, but even more so to the year in between of confronting some of the challenges, and grabbing the opportunities, we all face.