Data democracy: why you need to know how to handle your data

A woman wearing a protective face mask uses her mobile phone inside a public transport vehicle, amidst the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Lalitpur, Nepal December 27, 2020. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

A woman wearing a protective face mask uses her mobile phone inside a public transport vehicle, amidst the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Lalitpur, Nepal December 27, 2020. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

Widespread data confidence is a building block of a fair data future

Bipana Dhakal is an advocate for the Data Values Project and the Data Values Manifesto, supported by the UN Foundation’s Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, everyone’s lives were turned upside down around the world. This included taking our lives from the real world to the virtual one. Going to school and seeing friends became logging on for Zoom classes and spending hours on WhatsApp calls. But what would soon become apparent is that people in small, rural communities like mine do not have the necessary knowledge on how to handle their data - and that everyday data systems are not designed with everyone in mind.

I am from Bardiya, a district in mid-west Nepal. Nepal is a country in which, before the pandemic, only 40 percent of people regularly accessed the internet. Since 2020, that number has more than doubled, with the figure now sitting at 90 percent. This may seem like a roaring success, but the internet is a risky place where people’s intentions are not always pure or sincere. Hacking and identity theft are rampant and largely uncontrolled. Spam messages and tick boxes seem completely innocent, until they’re not.

Take my friend, whose Instagram account was hacked and her identity stolen. The hacker demanded money to unlock the account and leaked photos and private conversations. However, my friend did not know that this constituted identity theft, a crime punishable by law in Nepal. If she did not tell me about this happening to her, there is a good chance she would have been extorted - all because of an unnecessary knowledge gap which should not exist in the first place.

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That’s why I became a youth activist within my community and beyond. Young people in communities like mine are far less likely to understand how their data is managed or mismanaged than in communities where the internet has been commonplace for decades. There are very few mechanisms for people from rural communities, or any communities with lower-than-average internet use, to have adequate education on how their personal information is used and managed. On top of that, there is no universal system of equity which outlines the need for accessible data in many communities. When making plans and policies around data governance, the diverse nature of communities should be recognised, respected, and understood, leading to adequate policies and implementation plans which would be genuinely helpful.

Awareness is only the first step in ensuring that the way data is managed is serving individuals and communities around the world. Like every system in our modern world, data systems are not designed with everyone in mind. It is imperative that moving forward, in a constantly connected world, that governments, non-profits, service providers, and local communities work together to create and advocate for responsible data use and management.

As part of my work in mobilising governments to consider and prioritise rural communities when designing and implementing data policy, I took to the streets to ask young people how much knowledge they had of their data usage and governance. To my surprise, even the highly-educated young people had limited knowledge on the topic.

After this, I asked myself why the system has failed to bring people together in understanding a concept which affects our daily lives. Until and unless people are able to understand data in simpler words, and are mobilised to regulate their own data for their own betterment, overarching policies and strategies from governments and corporations will be in vain.

We need better communication from corporations large and small on how to keep our data safe and secure, so others do not have similar experiences like that of my friend and her Instagram account. We need to see systemic change to ensure that data, an extremely valuable resource which can be used for good, is actively improving the lives of everyone, everywhere - and not causing unnecessary harm.

The absence of regulatory guidance for businesses, surveillance practices, and unequal access have led to declining trust in the way our data is handled. Significant political and social shifts in conjunction with technical innovation can build the data future that serves everyone, that helps and empowers people, instead of harming and excluding them.

We’re now on the other side of the COVID tunnel. We’ve seen first-hand the hold technology and data have on our lives, including the damage a lack of data democracy can cause. Leaders must take a far more multidimensional approach to changing the data governance system and step up to make sure our voices are heard and listened to.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


  • COVID-19
  • Tech and inequality
  • Social media
  • Data rights

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