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Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

How community stewards can unlock value of data safely

For India’s migrant workers, data can be both a source of empowerment and a tool of oppression

One of the most enduring images of the covid-19 pandemic in India is that of migrant workers walking thousands of kilometres from cities to their home states, as the government announced one of the world’s strictest lockdowns. We still don’t have reliable figures for the number of migrants who moved—some estimates suggest 26 lakh, some, eight crore.

This lack of reliable data on migrant workers makes their experience invisible, and frames the manner in which the government and private sector responds to the situation. Beyond the horror of the journey, workers without ration cards have struggled to receive grains, find employment or get other benefits.

Scant data on the informal sector is particularly troubling since the government collects information from its residents at various points, in return for service delivery. This points to gaps in how data is collected, managed and used. On one hand, people manoeuvre data extractive relationships with the state and the private sector, and on the other, this information is unavailable and unusable in the time of a crisis.

This ambiguity about what data exists and what data is needed impacts marginalized communities, like migrants who rely on the government for basic services but are also the most vulnerable to data-fuelled coercions of the state as seen during the crisis. For vulnerable communities, data can be both a source of empowerment and a tool of oppression. Therefore, there is a need to create structures of negotiation and bargaining between people, and the government and private sector to ensure that data is accessible but not misused.

One of the ways in which this can be done is through a community data steward (CDS), an intermediary that can help unlock the value of data, making it available to the right stakeholders, while safeguarding the rights of people. The data steward, a representative of the choices in the community, will sit between the people whose data it is, and governments or private sector organizations that want this data, and work out the terms on which the data can and cannot be shared. The CDS assumes that individual ownership and control over data is complex to exercise, and people cannot take day-to-day decisions on data governance. Therefore, the CDS, with a fiduciary responsibility and duty of care codified through an agreement, can serve as a pool for data rights, aggregate consent and negotiate on a collective basis.

Of course, there are questions on what constitutes a community, which, in the context of our digital lives, is no longer defined by geographical boundaries, but a group of people who have similar concerns about the use and access of their information and could come together and collectively decide to create a CDS.

To illustrate with an example, in the context of the migrant crisis, several efforts to create jobs for workers in their villages are mushrooming. Here, a CDS, representing the interest of job seekers, could negotiate with startups for opportunities, by aggregating data on number of job seekers, types of qualifications, and facilitating the best possible outcomes on behalf of the people.

The CDS could prevent exploitation on behalf of the community, which might feel compelled to share data that isn’t necessarily required, enhancing agency and choice. Local civil society organizations can facilitate the creation of CDS. This structure will also add efficiencies for the ecosystem by becoming the main point of contact for organizations seeking to engage with the community.

The idea of community-driven efforts for data governance are explored in the works of Sylvie Delacroix and Neil Lawrence, who discuss bottom-up data trusts as a way for people to take the reins of their data, and move away from the current top-down regulatory frameworks that are “one-size fits-all" and do not account for the variation in the abilities and desires of people to participate in their own data governance.

For bottom-up data trusts, like the CDS, there are challenges to implementation such as uptake by people, usability by governments and private sector, and governance and technological architectures, and these need to be designed and tested multiple times before implementation. The CDS can solve questions of data availability while correcting power imbalances that exist in the current imagination of the data economy.

Astha Kapoor is the co-founder of Aapti Institute.

Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com

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