Al Kags

Citizen-Generated Data must be kept true to its essence: for citizens by citizens

In an ever-evolving world, the dynamic between citizens and governments is taking new forms. One such development is citizen-generated data, a concept becoming pivotal in the socio-political space. It’s essential to think about its true essence. While it has gained traction with the established structures, particularly national statistical offices, I worry that rather that being recognised, Citizen-Generated Data is being co-opted and confused for national statistics.

A Foray into Citizen-Generated Data

Citizen-generated data is actively created and shared by individuals or communities to monitor, demand or drive change on issues that matter to them. It is often spontaneous, voluntary, and emanates from grassroots levels, often presenting perspectives and insights that might be overlooked in official datasets. The participatory nature of this kind of data collection embodies a democratisation of information, where every citizen can potentially contribute to the larger picture of societal development.

We started working on Citizen-Generated Data in 2015 when the Sustainable Development Goals were first promulgated at the first presidential summit at the UN General Assembly. As we began to working with citizens at the hyperlocal level in Lanet-Umoja in Nakuru, we took the view that the SDGs would best and most sustainably be achieved at the hyperlocal level.

Our thinking was that if citizens collected data in their communities, identified their priorities and engaged their governments on those priorities, it would be more sustainable to track development. We could achieve the SDGs village by village, state by state, and county by county, and we would aggregate the indicators at the national and regional levels. The more villages that achieve clean drinking water in every household, the more SDG 6.1 (“Proportion of population using safely managed drinking water services”) could be achieved.

The True Essence: Grassroots, Authentic and Dynamic

The cornerstone of citizen generated data lies in its grassroots nature. The data is cultivated in the true settings of societal norms, cultural hues, and day-to-day experiences, making it a vibrant and rich resource for understanding the nuanced tapestry of society.

Moreover, this kind of data has a dynamic quality to it. It isn’t static or confined to rigid parameters. Instead, it evolves with the citizens’ changing perceptions, insights, and experiences. This pulsating, live feed of data offers a unique lens to understand society’s complex, ever-changing realities.

Citizens collecting data in Elgeyo Marakwet County

The Concerns: The Coopting by National Statistical Offices

In the quest for inclusivity and richness of data, national statistical offices (NSOs) have focused on integrating citizen-generated data into official statistics. While this may seem like a step towards democratisation and inclusivity, it does raise several concerns.

  1. Misrepresentation and Dilution: As official agencies adopt citizen-generated data, there’s a looming threat of its essence being diluted or misrepresented. The raw, unfiltered narratives can be lost, replaced by sanitised, official narratives that may not truly represent the citizens’ perspectives — stripped of their rawness, urgency, and authenticity.

    The bureaucratic machinery, in its quest to adhere to standardised data collection and analysis methods, might inadvertently sift through this data, retaining only pieces that align with pre-defined parameters, and discarding the rest as noise.

    This can translate into a stark misrepresentation of ground realities, where the complex tapestry of individual narratives is replaced by a monochrome picture that fits neatly within official frameworks but does not do justice to the rich diversity of citizen experiences. The dilution of these narratives means losing out on the depth and breadth of information that CGD can potentially provide, leaving in its wake a shallow representation that may not resonate with the actual citizen perspective.
  2. Data Manipulation: The integration of citizen generated data into official databases opens up avenues for potential manipulation or selective inclusion of data, which could sway the statistical results to align with particular agendas. As we traverse the journey of merging citizen data with official records, we inadvertently open a Pandora’s box of potential data manipulation risks.

    The process of filtering, categorising, and analysing CGD can become a breeding ground for selective inclusion of data, a scenario where only data that aligns with certain narratives or agendas finds its way into official records. This manoeuvre can drastically shift the essence of the data, moving away from a true representation of citizen voices to a manipulated version that serves specific interests.

    This manipulation is not merely a statistical issue but one that could have far-reaching implications on the society at large. Altered narratives could fuel policies and decisions that do not necessarily align with the real needs and nuances of the community. The ripple effects of this could be seen in skewed development agendas, misaligned resource allocations, and a general distrust between citizens and governing bodies.
  3. Loss of Authenticity: NSOs might impose stringent criteria for data collection, potentially stripping citizen generated data of its spontaneous and voluntary nature, thereby losing the authenticity that characterises it. While standardisation and quality control are fundamental aspects of data collection and analysis, they come with a caveat when applied to CGD.

    NSOs might impose stringent criteria with the intention of harmonising data, ensuring reliability, and facilitating comparability across various parameters. However, this move can potentially rob CGD of its spontaneity, converting a previously organic process into a rigid, structured framework. This metamorphosis from voluntary narratives to structured responses can dampen the richness of the data, leading to a loss of depth and nuances. The stories, once vibrant with the hues of genuine community experiences, might get reduced to mere numbers, losing their narrative potency and connection to real-life scenarios.
  4. Privacy Concerns: Citizen generated data sometimes contains personal or sensitive information. Without proper safeguards, integrating this data into official databases can raise significant privacy concerns. In its very essence, CGD is a repository of rich, grassroots-level information, providing deep insights into the lives and experiences of individuals and communities. However, this richness sometimes comes with a caveat – the inclusion of personal or sensitive data. Whether it’s specific details about individuals’ health, financial status, or other personal narratives, this data, if mishandled, can become a source of significant privacy violations, sparking concerns about consent and the potential misuse of information.

    In the face of this potential privacy dilemma, the need for robust safeguards becomes paramount. As official databases consider the inclusion of CGD, it is crucial that stringent measures are put in place to protect the privacy of individuals. This entails a meticulous process of data anonymisation, where personal identifiers are removed to prevent the tracing back of data to individual persons. Moreover, establishing clear protocols for data handling, which include consent mechanisms and clear guidelines on data usage, are necessary to prevent unauthorized access or misuse of sensitive information. These safeguards should be accompanied by strict enforcement mechanisms to ensure adherence to privacy norms.

What then?

Preserving the Unfiltered Voices

Addressing this issue is not just about preventing data mishandling, but about preserving the very essence of what CGD stands for – a direct, unfiltered line to the hearts and minds of a community. It’s about safeguarding the right of citizens to have their voices heard in their most authentic, unaltered form.

To prevent this dilution and misrepresentation, it becomes essential to develop mechanisms that allow for the integration of CGD in a manner that respects its organic nature. This could involve fostering closer collaborations between citizens and statistical agencies, where community representatives play a role in ensuring the faithful representation of their data. Moreover, training and capacity-building initiatives could be undertaken to equip citizens with the skills to effectively collect and present data, without losing sight of the raw narratives that make this data so invaluable.

Fostering a Balanced Approach

To prevent this loss of authenticity, it becomes essential for NSOs to foster a balanced approach in integrating CGD into their databases. This entails creating an environment where citizens can continue to share their narratives voluntarily, without the pressure of conforming to strict data collection norms.

NSOs might consider developing flexible frameworks that allow for the incorporation of diverse data types, including narratives, anecdotes, and community stories. These frameworks should be designed to honor the organic nature of CGD, encouraging citizens to share their perspectives without fear of them being altered or dismissed due to non-conformity with stringent standards.

Collaborative Strategies to Preserve Authenticity

Collaborative strategies involving community representatives could be a beacon of hope in preserving the authenticity of CGD. By fostering partnerships with community groups and organizations, NSOs can create platforms where the spontaneous and voluntary sharing of information is encouraged and celebrated. These platforms can serve as a rich repository of genuine community insights, offering a vibrant tapestry of narratives that add depth and dimension to official statistics.

NSOs should be stewards of CGD

As we grapple with the complexities and potentials of Citizen Generated Data (CGD), a proposition worth considering is the metamorphosis of NSOs into stewards of this rich and varied data landscape. As stewards of CGD, they would be entrusted with the task of managing a dynamic library of data sourced directly from diverse communities. This repository would be more than just a collection of data; it would encapsulate the varied narratives, experiences, and insights that define different communities, serving as a living document of the societal pulse at any given time.

This envisioned library would be a confluence of data streams emanating from different corners of society, each telling a unique story. By nurturing a space where these stories are curated and preserved in their authentic form, NSOs can facilitate a rich and nuanced understanding of communities, their challenges, and their aspirations. Such a library would stand as a testament to the diversity of experiences and perspectives that characterize the human populace.

Democratising Data: Free and Unfettered Access

One of the cornerstone principles of this proposal is the democratization of data. NSOs, as stewards, would be tasked with ensuring that this wealth of information is accessible freely to all segments of society. By fostering an open data culture, NSOs can catalyze a wave of informed decision-making, research, and innovation.

Educational institutions, researchers, policy makers, and the general public would find in this library a treasure trove of insights that could fuel a plethora of initiatives ranging from academic research to community development projects. Moreover, the transparency inherent in such an open-access model would serve to foster trust and collaboration between governmental agencies and the populace.

Protecting the Sanctity of Data: Upholding Privacy and Authenticity

In this role, NSOs would also bear the responsibility of upholding the sanctity of the data they steward. This involves implementing robust mechanisms to protect privacy and ensure data authenticity. As guardians of CGD, NSOs would need to strike a delicate balance between openness and privacy, ensuring that data sharing does not compromise individual privacy or lead to misuse of sensitive information.

The proposition of NSOs as stewards of citizen generated data paints a vision of a collaborative and inclusive future. In this new role, NSOs would function as bridges connecting communities with a world eager to learn from and engage with their narratives. By championing an open, diverse, and respectful data culture, NSOs can pave the way for a society where data is not just a tool for policy formulation, but a shared resource that nurtures community bonds, fosters innovation, and propels us towards a future that is truly representative of the rich tapestry of human experiences.

Read also: Part Two: Citizen-Generated Data must be kept true to its essence – and be kept in its definition.

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