Throughout our work at Tech Matters—whether it be tech consulting for nonprofits, or conversations with partners by our Aselo and Terraso teams—the topic of data rights is as unavoidable as it is nuanced. Who should own the data? What ethical questions do we need to ask when gathering that data from the very people we claim to help? What harm might we be doing without even realizing?
These are questions we all need to ask ourselves, and actually address, lest we replicate practices that fall under the label of “data colonialism”—where the data collected from people and communities leads to value for whoever’s doing the extraction but not for that community. Or worse, hurts that community.
To help us learn about this topic, Nithya Ramanathan, co-founder and CEO of Nexleaf, designed the “Decolonize Data” session, which was hosted at this year’s Skoll World Forum. In response to questions by our own Jim Fruchterman, Nithya walked us through what data colonialism is, how it plays out in the field of social enterprise, and what we can do about it. Check out the session! (27 minutes on YouTube)
It was lovely to see all the interest and feedback after the main session! Comments were along the lines of: “I had no idea we were using methods that could be considered data colonialism” or “I’d never heard the term before—this has really got me thinking more critically about our own practices.” We also received plenty of feedback from organizations that are already thinking in these terms and actively working to incorporate data rights into their products and services.
What we hope comes across, along with Nithya’s many insights, is that being aware of data colonialism doesn’t mean we always have the right answer—it means continually critiquing our own work. The challenge is to evaluate how we relate to data and how data relates us to the people we work for.
Resources for Policy
For more details about the session, author bios, and info about the Skoll World Forum, check out the Skoll link.
There are plenty of organizations working on this issue from a policy, human rights, or product design lens Check out this (very partial) list of resources we gathered from the session, and please do reach out to continue the conversation!
- Nexleaf’s Position on Data Rights
- United States Indigenous Data Sovereignty Network
- Urban Indian Health Institute
- Data Responsibility — Centre for HumData, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
- Responsible Data
- Decolonizing Digital Rights, Digital Freedom Fund
- Racial Equity Tools
- The Open Data Institute
If interested in digging deeper—the research, examples where data rights are violated, how data colonialism plays out in an ecosystem, and counter-practices—check out any of the following:
- Data colonialism: Rethinking Big Data’s Relation to the Contemporary Subject (paper)
- The Costs of Connection (book)
- Adapting Western Research Methods to Indigenous Ways of Knowing (paper)
- Stuck in the middle: a systematic review of authorship in collaborative health research in Africa, 2014–2016 (paper)
- Beyond the trend of decolonizing science (video)
- Digital decolonization (paper)
- Efforts to decolonize global health on the rise (paper)
- Decolonial AI: Decolonial Theory as Sociotechnical Foresight in Artificial Intelligence (paper)
- Data Feminism (book)
- Design Justice (book)