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D4G X 2021 | Data Empowerment: Rethinking Ownership, Capacity and Agency

(Sanjay Purohit’s opening remarks at Data4Good Exchange session at Dasra Philanthropy Week: Harnessing the power of data: Data4Good Exchange (D4G X) in India. Text edited for brevity only.)

Anthropologist Gregory Bateson said, “Information is the difference that makes the difference”. At Data4Good Exchange (D4G X) India, our endeavor is to focus on data, the building block of information and explore how we can use it to make a difference at scale. 

The big question is how do you bring data into the life and flow of people’s everyday events. It is not about collecting data and creating sophisticated synthesis and analytics, that’s an aside. The real question is how do you bring it into the day-to-day activities of people. You might have heard the term first-mile and not last-mile because most of the time we defer to people by saying, we have to reach the last-mile. I think we have to invert that question: how we begin from the first-mile – the community, the people, the most vulnerable of the society – of the question rather than the last mile of the question.

And of course, the question of visibility: if I can see things, then there’s a higher probability that I can solve or at least I can see whether it is being solved. These are some of the questions that started unfolding in our minds as we started rethinking, who is at the center of this conversation? Who is the ‘you’ and who is the ‘i’ because the moment you take the conversation from the center of the community, then the ‘i’ is the community, it’s the people.

I have this anecdotal that I share with people: there was a time when I would drive with these massive AAA maps which had this cartesian coordinate: a,b,c,d on one side, 1,2,3,4 on the other side to locate the route. This was way before any of us saw all the good stuff from Google maps and others. And you could locate yourself in a6 or c9 so that you can see where you are. Then comes digital and suddenly you are this blue dot which is always in the center of the screen and so the whole reference changed. Instead of the screen being the fixed and you being the variable, you became the fixed and the screen became the variable. The question that we have to answer from a D4G X perspective is how do we create a narrative where the people who we are trying to serve are at the center and everything else is with reference to that, rather than everything else being an ecosystem and we are trying to place people into that ecosystem. That’s a question that we are trying to explore through this conversation.

If you look at the history of civilization,  we have been through some important transitions.  The first round of civilisation of humanity happened when we learned how to move matter, how to move things, leading to agricultural revolution. Then we learned how to move energy, that’s when the industrial revolution happened. Then we learned how to move information and that’s when the knowledge revolution happened. And of course, in 1905, Einstein connected matter and energy and then Szilard in 1929, connected energy and information, and we said there are three building blocks of civilisation: matter, energy and information.

Now let’s talk about the development narrative: how have we focused on the societal development narrative? It seems to be sort of stuck in moving matter and moving energy, and we are still not too sure, too clear, too solid on how moving information is the one that is transforming the landscape of development. 

In D4G X, our intent is to open the discussion and get the questions right – on how moving information is the next important step in reshaping the way we look at development and services for the most vulnerable in our respective communities. As I was trying to unpack this question, I came across some very good learnings from Amartya Sen who said that, ‘development consists of the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency’. And I think the big word here is reasoned agency. Data plays a very important role in being the real resource for reasoning, for being the resource in thinking through, and so today, I would like to draw your attention to three aspects of this resource: 

  1. ownership to essentially enable freedom,
  2. capacity to exercise freedom, 
  3. and agency to do that at our own will. 

Let us spend a few more moments reflecting on these three dimensions: ownership, capacity, and agency. Of course, there’s a lot of debate and discussion going on around ownership of data. And the narrative has been slowly moving across different domains starting from the institution owns the data and the institution derives the benefit – which essentially is the capture model of data, as to how the data is captured for the benefit of the few. A lot of work over the last few years has happened in saying the institution owns the data but opens it for individual benefit, and the whole evolution of the thinking around the commons.

i think it’s important to see whether we can push the narrative even further – where the individual owns the data for individual benefit – which is the data empowerment model

Some work has been happening on that front and I would urge you to look up the Data Empowerment and Protection Architecture (DEPA) – the guidelines for which were published by NITI Aayog in India. It has stated important design principles as to how you can design data for empowerment and protection. I would like to certainly draw your attention to three:

  1. Reimagining what is user-control: what is the meaning of informed consent? how do you really rethink and do that in a very thoughtful and intelligent way? 
  2. What is the design of data minimization so that you collect the minimum required, most important data and do that very thoughtfully. Just because the vulnerable do not know what you will do with the data, we should not go ahead and collect relentless, reckless amounts of information.
  3. The third important aspect is the guideline around interoperability: making data interoperate amongst various systems is an important element of making this work for the benefit of society. So how do you make it interoperable rather than create more and more data silos over time?

There have been different models in the way people have thought about data empowerment: 

  • There are economies which think that data is a capital good and look at how to capitalise data
  • Then there are economies which think that data is to be not used for anything – completely protected, completely closed 
  • Then there are economies that think that data is meant for surveillance

But I think in India, we have to think about data as a very important foundation for democracy, a foundation for empowering people because of the good it can do in serving the most vulnerable. So the rethink point i want to place for you is what is the meaning of ownership in the context that we all work in. 

I would also like to reflect on the second point which is the capacity of the people to exercise their freedom. Now again the narrative is moving:

  • So there was a narrative around data saying that you can see what is happening because of all the dashboards and the analytics that you have put together and you can solve the problem. I think that’s a control oriented improvement because very few people can see what’s the issue and very few people can do something about it. 
  • But then we progressed to a point of saying, I can see but you can solve – which is the request model of change or the request model of freedom. Saying I can see the problem and I can request for change.
  • But I think it’s important to push the narrative even further where I can see and I can solve my problem. And that’s a very important element and I need to get that visibility into where my life, my journey, my agency is in this world – the empowerment model.

So how do you build the capacity of people to see, make sense and act on things in the best interest. At Societal Platform, we have put together 9 design principles for what it takes to create these kinds of systems. I would not go into the nine but let me highlight three:

  • How do you design for observability? How do you improve people’s ability to see? 
  • How do you design for heterogeneity? How do you create diverse contexts? India is a diverse country with various contexts – languages, socioeconomic backgrounds, political landscape, demographics. How do we embrace heterogeneity rather than standardise and make everybody fall into one defined bracket? 
  • The third important aspect is actionability: can i act on the data? While I am the provider of the resource, somebody else might be acting on the data. I think that is an important question that we need to read. 

So this whole continuum of sense – makes sense – act is something that we have to evaluate while designing. These are design problems because if we don’t design these things thoughtfully then the consequences of course, are ours to bear over time. 

The third and the last reflection point or the rethink point i would like to highlight is agency. Agency is the ability to give every individual a sense that – you have the right data, the metrics to demand tangible impact. That sense of I have that sense of ownership, but more important is to then mobilize it through i can create solutions in my own interest. If i can do that then i can unlock my wishes, i can give feedback, and inform the policy and budgets which affect my life and my community, and then go on to essentially claim my right to access more information, more data and take more action. And I think this is an important virtuous cycle so if we get the ownership right, if we get the capacity to change right, and then we get the agency right. Then the intersection of these three is where there is an interesting possibility of designing our responses differently. 

Image source: D4G X India: Data Matters | Enabling Data Empowerment for India’s Most Vulnerable | Landscape StudyLandscape Study

The last point I want to mention is that there are more dimensions of rethink which I will not touch upon today but I would request you to touch upon as we go through the rest of the evening. 

  • How do we rethink the mechanisms by which we can embed it in our mindset? How can we make more people think like this?
  • How do we embed this in our investment thesis? How can philanthropists and people who are supporting development narratives invest in data such that the vulnerable people get more agency to act on? Is it an empowerment narrative or is it a controlled narrative? 
  • And the third is how do we embed this into program design because a lot of you on this call run different kinds of programs? How do you bring this thinking into the way you design your programs?

Highlights of the session can be read here.

Data for Good Exchange India: Data Matters | Enabling Data Empowerment for India’s Most Vulnerable | Landscape Study. Click on the link above to download the report.

Recording of the session, 'Harnessing the Power of Data:: Data for Good Exchange (D4GX) in India', held at Dasra Philanthropy Week 2021.