Open data and privacy not 'headbanging' concepts

A man uses his tablet during a meeting on open data initiatives in Spain. Could open data and privacy go hand in hand? Photo by: / CC BY-SA

Any discussion on open data is almost always followed by debates on privacy concerns.

Many individual and organizations — whether in international development or other sectors — remain wary about publishing information online. And their fears aren’t unfounded.

Some donor governments that publish activity-level data online have received flak for spending too much in a sector that, in the eyes of its taxpayers, doesn’t provide value for money. Many nongovernmental organizations, meanwhile, have been subjected to public scrutiny after disclosing how much they pay their CEOs. Given the negative attention, it is not surprising for many of these actors to become more controlling of the information they release to the public.

Claire Melamed, lead author of a U.N.-commissioned report on data revolution, was spot on when she told Devex previously that “unless people trust the data would be used in ways that help them and don’t harm them, in ways they have confidence and have certain amount of control on how it will be used, they will not allow their data to be used.”

High-level aid officials such as U.N. Resident Coordinator for Indonesia Douglas Broderick and Australia’s development cooperation program head in Indonesia James Gilling also highlighted the issue of privacy in our conversations on open data. Gilling, in particular, underscored the importance of having “the right balance” to ensure privacy but at the same time open more data to the public.

Similarly, professor Miriam Lips from the University of Wellington doesn’t believe open data and privacy is an either-or type of situation. Lips is currently involved in discussions around setting up a national data council in New Zealand wherein data would be published without revealing any personal information.

“I don’t see privacy and increased information-sharing as opposite to each other or headbanging … or black and white. I think we should bring them together and design information-sharing initiatives that are privacy friendly,” she told Devex at a data conference in Bali, Indonesia, in November.

How such an initiative would look like within the international development sector remains to be seen, but a grass-roots initiative in Indonesia — — that was set up to ensure the credibility and transparency of the recent election in the country provides an example of how this can be done.

The crowdsourced platform, which was created solely to have a transparent system for counting and monitoring votes, is not the first such initiative. Developers started similar ones in the past, but none were launched. They had to stop developing the sites midway through the project for various reasons, including intimidation or interference from political parties. Others, meanwhile, were set up to disrupt the elections, intentionally showing incorrect figures.

What Elisa Sutanudjaja, administrator of, and Ainun Nadjib, who initiated the whole project, did was to keep all work, including responding to media inquiries, between themselves. This allowed the 700 volunteers — all of whom were screened to ensure they have no direct links to any of the candidates — who helped crowdsource the project to remain anonymous.

“What makes us different [is that] we are closed sourcing. We started from five people, and those five people trusted five more people, and then from that five people, it became 700 people,” Sutanudjaja told Devex.

The volunteers came from more than 20 cities in Indonesia, and 26 other countries.

Sutanudjaja and Nadjib maintained two websites as well. Votes are inputted into the second site, which can only be accessed by the volunteers. Editors, including Sutanudjaja, randomly check the inputted data to ensure accuracy, correcting errors if needed.

“We have the check and recheck system … There are honest mistakes sometimes [like double typing],” the administrator said. “We also invite the public to oversee our work, as you can see from our [other] website. [If] we’ve put a mistake, the public can also report the data they have on the ground is different with [our] data, [and] after that we report it back to the KPU [Indonesia’s national election commission].”

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About the author

  • Ravelo jennylei

    Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.