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This is part of a series of posts by Akvo staff members called “Reflections and perspectives”, timed to coincide with the publishing of the Akvo 2014 Annual Report.

When I look around me at the context in which we work, one thing I notice is that there’s a tension at play between two significant observable trends pushing in opposite directions. On the one hand, I see a positive, expanding momentum to strive for aid transparency and #Opendata for development and all the benefits that brings, and on the other, a complex raft of issues surrounding personal privacy and consent online.

I was intrigued to read this blog by my new colleague Annabelle Poelert (who I’ve yet to meet) about a conference she recently attended called Responsible Data for Humanitarian Response. She remarked that, “Most of the professional data scientists seemed to be quite dismissive about the dangers of ploughing ahead with new types of data analysis without fully understanding the consequences. Their biggest concerns weren’t necessarily ethical in nature. They seemed more afraid of failing to explore data analysis to its full potential and losing momentum. But what mistakes can be considered acceptable if the data affects people’s lives?”

Aid transparency is very far from a new concept these days, and the benefits and scope of the phenomenon are far more widely understood and accepted than they were when Akvo came into being in 2007 with a mission to provide a platform to help open up the water and sanitation sector. Movements such as the International Aid Transparency Initiative are rapidly normalising openness and accountability.

But there is still a big part of the journey yet to unfold, and no one has travelled this path before.

The trend towards open online data is mirrored across all different aspects of society. Around the world everyone is publishing more than they ever did or could before via a constantly changing and growing range of social media platforms, and the consequences of that – the good, the bad and the ugly – are unfurling before our eyes every day. Both the benefits and the drawbacks are enormous and almost unquantifiable. It’s bewildering. Lots of people over-share. And once something is circulated on the internet, you can never rub it out. Only a small and highly motivated group of geekerati have any clue how to protect their privacy online, or indeed just how far it’s already been compromised. No one really yet knows what the impact of life lived through a screen will be on all of us and future generations. As a parent, it’s terrifying because you have no experience to fall back on, your kids are probably way ahead of you, and yet you need to guide them. In a sense, we’re all open data pioneers these days. Which is a more positive way of saying, basically we’re all lost in a place with no maps. We learn through everyone’s mistakes (most of which are now viewable online for our delectation – which is great, as long as the mistakes are not your own).

Leadership gap

It seems to me there’s a leadership gap in this area in the development sector. There is a space for someone to step up and provide some guidance on how to navigate the ethical dilemmas and practical aspects of publishing different types of information. I feel like Akvo, in common with some of our partners, is well-placed to do that; we’re developing and using tools to help make country governance and international development cooperation more open, transparent and collaborative, so we should have an understanding of how to deal with the associated privacy and security issues that raises. There is an opportunity for us to provide some guidance and support to organisations facing these issues. (Which is almost all organisations.)

Success is a bycatch

Data is an energy that, like anything else, can be used for good or evil. We need to help make sure it’s a force for good. Let’s not forget that we’re all doing all this open data stuff to improve the world and help people. That’s the point of all of it, and the reason why we need to succeed and grow. It’s so easy for a sector or an organisation to get caught up in striving so hard to be successful at something that the success itself can become the central goal. Then the original vision gets lost in a haze of tactics and competition. You end up with an entity that exists to feed itself. We all know institutions, both governmental and non-governmental, that wear this cap. (From my vantage point in the final few days before the UK general election, I’m really struggling to find a politician or party that doesn’t fit this description, sadly.)

Akvo is a ‘not for profit, not for loss’ foundation, which means our focus is not on our own financial success or rewards for shareholders. But we do still need to be sufficiently successful to achieve our objectives, to have the freedom and breathing space to keep innovating, and to endure and be sustainable for the long term in order to make good our commitments. So we aim to be successful and grow, but only in so far as that’s necessary to realise our more fundamental vision of a more equitable society. It’s a delicate balance, and one that becomes particularly precarious during times of rapid growth and change, such as we have experienced over the past two years.

In the technology sector it’s essential to keep adapting your objectives to changing needs and environments. If you stop changing, you die. So you really have to keep focussed on your vision, and keep a tight hold of your core values, and use those to guide you through the land of no maps. In Akvo’s case that means “to collaborate to make things work better…to create a better world, for both the people in it and our natural environment…to preserve what is good and improve what can be improved upon by our intervention.” This is our bottom line. As long as everything we do is done for the greater good, and not for the good of Akvo, I think we’re on the right track.

Jo Pratt is communications manager at Akvo, based in UK. You can follow her on Twitter @Jo108. Other stories in the ‘Reflections and perspectives’series:
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