Why the UN Global Digital Compact needs to get serious about participatory data

By Vinay Narayan, Joe Massey and Elena Simperl,
June 25th, 2024

Publication : Blog
Themes : Community RightsDigital EcosystemSustainable Development Goals

Why the UN Global Digital Compact needs to get serious about participatory data

Image sourced by www.un.org

This article was originally published by the Open Data Institute. Access the original article here.

The Global Digital Compact, currently nearing its final version, seeks to outline “shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all”. This blog post seeks to unpack how participation in the data economy is an important part of achieving its aims.

This blog was written by Joe Massey, Open Data Institute, Vinay Narayan, Aapti Institute, and Elena Simperl, Open Data Institute, as part of our work on the participatory data programme.

What is the Global Digital Compact?

On the commemoration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the United Nations on 28 September 2020, the UN Member States adopted a resolution which pledged to improve digital cooperation. The declaration noted the unprecedented opportunities that digital technologies unlocked, but also the harms that could arise from their use and implementation. Following this, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres proposed a digital technology track where all stakeholders could come together to agree on a Global Digital Compact (GDC), that would “outline shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all”.

The GDC is led by the Member States of the UN, and implemented through multi-stakeholder action. A policy brief from the UN on the GDC noted specifically, the need for urgency to tackle some of the challenges brought by digital technologies.

The process of designing the GDC was in itself collaborative. It began in 2022, and was led by The Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology, who solicited input from over 6,000 different stakeholders, including 160 Governments, private sector organisations, civil society, academia and technical providers. Online consultations centred on 8 topics including connectivity, data commons, regulating AI and more, with over 400 responses from around the world. Aapti Institute, along with Data Privacy Brasil, InternetBolivia Foundation, KICTANet, and Paradigm Initiative submitted comments advocating for a Global South perspective to the topics in question.

The zero draft of the GDC was released on 1 April 2024, with a first revision released on 15 May 2024 drawing on oral and written inputs provided by UN Member States and observers. The final text of the GDC will be decided at the Summit of the Future in September 2024.

The Global Digital Compact sets out five objectives, 12 principles and an array of commitments and actions to achieve an ‘inclusive, open, sustainable, safe and secure digital future for all’. The five main objectives are:

  1. Close all digital divides and accelerate progress across the Sustainable Development Goals;
  2. Expand inclusion in and benefits from the digital economy for all;
  3. Foster an inclusive, open, safe and secure digital space that respects, protects and promote human rights;
  4. Advance responsible and equitable international data governance;
  5. Strengthen international governance of emerging technologies, including Artificial Intelligence, for the benefit of humanity.

We’re excited about the potential that the GDC has to affect change in the world of data and technology. The importance of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals is clear, and this document, with leadership from the UN will be an important part of doing so.

However, the GDC is a relatively high-level document, without a clear plan for how to achieve the different objectives and commitments. Based on the framing around the GDC, the details about how it will be implemented and how the goals will be achieved are likely to be left to individual Member States and other stakeholders, much like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Despite being more than halfway to the 2030 deadline, only 15% of the goals set under the SDGs are on track, with some even going in reverse. In discussing how progress towards the SDGs can be improved, Hala Helmy el-Said, the Egyptian Minister of Planning and Economic Development highlighted the importance of localised solutions pointing to the fact that 65% of the 17 SDG targets required implementation at the local level. In addition to this, digital transformation and use of digital technologies for good were identified as two big factors that can propel ways to better achieve the SDGs.

If the SDGs experience is a yardstick, the adoption of a similar approach with the GDC is potentially problematic. Participatory data initiatives, alongside other levers such as open data standardsprivacy enhancing technologies, and responsible principles, provide a potential avenue to address these failings.

So what does this have to do with participatory data?

The wider aim of the GDC is to create a digital ecosystem that works for everyone. To do that, everyday people need to be involved in its design, development and deployment.

This theme of participation is strong throughout the wider context of the GDC. Its main aim includes the concept of inclusivity, as do two of the five objectives. Throughout the different objectives and activities there are references to involving people and diverse stakeholders in various different ways. The concept of inclusive data has been a strong theme at the UN level for some time, and is a critical part of achieving the SDGs. Examples include projects to support inclusive data collection about disability, gender and children.

At the ODI and Aapti Institute we’ve been researching and working with participatory data initiatives and their potential to rebalance some of the imbalances of the data ecosystem.

We’ve seen how collective data stewardship amongst communities of fishers in India, has enabled them to have a seat at the table to discuss their lived realities, and advocate for their communities. An example from Switzerland, Posmo Coop, enables it’s members to maintain control over mobility data collected to improve the local infrastructure. And closer to home, the Camden Ethical Data Charter empowers local residents to deliberate upon and create a set of guidelines for how data should be used in the local area.

Participation can empower individuals and communities by increasing people’s control over the data that relates to them, improve data quality and decision making by incorporating diverse perspectives, knowledge and experiences, and build trust and collaboration. We believe it’s an important part of creating a world where data works for everyone, just as the GDC is seeking to do.

How can participation help to achieve the GDC in practice?

Take a people-centric approach throughout the Compact

While the wider aims of the GDC speak to making data and technology work for everyone, much of the language around participation and involving people does not specifically focus on people and communities, but rather member states or other stakeholders. The need to involve lots of different stakeholders to achieve the GDC is clear, however the lack of focus on the people and communities that this Compact is meant to support is a concern.

In a similar vein, the GDC objectives feature many of the underlying concepts which participation can help to achieve. This includes ideas like ‘fostering an inclusive, open, safe and secure digital space’, ‘advancing responsible and equitable international data governance’, and ‘expanding inclusion in and benefits from the digital economy for all’. However the specific focus on involving people and communities to achieve these objectives does not carry through to the commitments. The commitments and solutions in the GDC do not always consider the perspectives of those whom it is trying to support. While the focus on those who currently have the power to make change is warranted, the GDC should also look to put people at the centre of the efforts by taking a people-centric approach.

Set out a complimentary action plan embedding the perspectives of people and communities

There are a number of specific areas in the compact where specific participatory activities are called for, however little explanation of how to achieve the principles in action. For example there are urgent calls for “digital technology companies and developers to engage with users of all ages and backgrounds to incorporate their perspectives and needs into the life cycle of digital technologies”, and a commitment to “empower individuals and groups with the ability to consider, give and withdraw their consent to the use of their data and the ability to choose how that data is used, including through legally mandated protections for data privacy”, amongst others.

To ensure the maximum impact of the GDC, there should be an accompanying action plan, which sets out guidance for how to achieve each of the commitments listed in the document. From a participatory data lens, our work has looked at the different ways that people can be more involved in a data ecosystem. Different methods of involving people suit different contexts, and it will be important to think about the context to focus on each type of participation.

  • At the data layer, people can be involved in the creation, maintenance, use and sharing of data. We work with the Insight Hub and Uber to run data access panels, which contribute towards decisions about who should get access to data, for what reasons and under what conditions.
  • At the organisational layer, people can be involved in the governance of organisations that collect, maintain and share data. With the GPAI we have co-designed a set of data trusts to tackle three climate challenges. These data trusts would enable people to maintain control over data collected about a specific local issue.
  • At the policy layer, people can be involved in determining the ‘rules of the game’, via methods like public consultations or citizen juries. For example, we have worked with Ipsos and the NHS AI Lab to understand how people want to make decisions about access to health scan data for research, ultimately impacting funding for future prototyping and testing.

An action plan detailing different methods to achieve different parts of the GDC would provide the relevant guidance needed. While different approaches will need to be tailored based on context, learning and sharing insights from previous examples of participation can support those working towards the GDC to achieve their goals.

Empower conversations and participation at both a global and local level

In order to achieve the commitments set within, the GDC recognises actions that need to be taken at both global and local levels. The creation of global datasets and a global governance framework for the internet are accompanied with the imperative to identify local technological solutions and create locally-generated datasets.

The previous section provided illustrations of how participatory methods in relation to data can be embedded in different layers. It is an imperative to take this a step further by embedding these methods at both the global and local levels. For example, local participatory data-collection efforts can aid in creating a wealth of hyperlocal data that is crucial to achieving other goals within the GDC, such as tackling climate change. In tandem, the involvement of people from various parts of the world via global assemblies can help create a more just and equitable global governance framework for the internet. In prior research, we found that many participatory initiatives succeed when focusing on specific local challenges, so finding global participatory mechanisms which meaningfully empower people to affect change is an on-going challenge.

In addition to solving issues at that particular level, participatory efforts that operate at the global and local levels also supplement each other. Shared technical infrastructure, norms and governance built with participatory dialogue can provide an enabling environment for more localised action — such as the creation of AI and IoT devices that address context specific needs. Simultaneously, the participatory collection of hyperlocal data enabled through devices that work for that particular context can help in the creation of a more granular and widespread database that can inform global policy action.

Participatory mechanisms at a global and local level are vital to tackling the differentiated scope of application of the actions set out in the GDC and can accelerate the path towards achieving its commitments.

Participatory data is a vital component of achieving the Global Digital Compact

While the wider brief of the Global Digital Compact is exactly what is needed, we’re already looking forward to understanding how these objectives, principles and commitments are set to be achieved. There is so much fantastic work already happening to involve people and communities in different parts of the data ecosystem, and there is much to be learnt from these initiatives. These include: stewardship efforts, like data trusts and cooperatives that provide people with greater control and agency over their data, in scenarios ranging from small scale fisheries to urban planning; free, open source platforms that foster participatory democracy; and citizen science experiments that empower citizens to map air quality at a granular level and draw links between air quality and other local factors for individual and group analysis.

These initiatives also want to have a say about the GDC, and are part of a wider conversation about the breadth of commitments made in the charter. For example, the Wikimedia Foundation published an open letter which calls for a commitment to protect and empower communities to govern online public interest projects amongst other demands.

We hope to see an actionable plan alongside the release of the final draft of the GDC which clearly sets out a vision for how these objectives and commitments can be achieved in practice. The action plan should include clear examples of how people and communities can contribute to this debate, and can ultimately participate in creating a world where data and technology works for everyone.

If you’d like to talk about how you can embed participatory data methodologies into your work, or if you’d like to learn more about our work, get in touch with the team at [email protected].