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Decolonising data


4 May 2021 at 7:39 am
Nikki Stefanoff
"I think it’s something we need to really understand – holders of data hold the power, they make the decisions and they reinforce their own privilege."


Nikki Stefanoff | 4 May 2021 at 7:39 am


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Decolonising data
4 May 2021 at 7:39 am

“I think it’s something we need to really understand – holders of data hold the power, they make the decisions and they reinforce their own privilege.”

A leading data scientist has called for NGOs, governments, and social enterprises to fully engage with communities when data is being researched, analysed and collected on their land. 

Social entrepreneur, data scientist, and CEO of Nexleaf Analytics, Nithya Ramanathan, discussed the issue of Decolonising Data in a fireside chat as part of the SKOLL World Forum, a three-day virtual conference attended by individuals and organisations dedicated to social change. 

She said data colonialism was when one entity – it could be a company, a not for profit, a donor, a government or a social enterprise – claims ownership of data produced by others and then takes most of the value of that data.

Speaking in the context of global health, Ramanathan said she and her team at Nexleaf had been seeing a really disturbing pattern of “well-meaning researchers or NGOs [who] come into a country and collect data, or take data collected by others, hold onto it, and then [benefit from its] value”. 

“So often data’s taken and analysed in private without involving communities [and] in that analysis we risk missing context about that data. In more extreme cases, data is taken without a community’s knowledge or consent,” she said. 

“In the worst-case scenario, the data’s not publicly presented but instead just analysed and then held.”

Ramanathan said she had heard global ministers of health express their frustration at seeing people stand up at a conference and present data about their countries. 

Data they had never seen or had any idea was being collected.

The similarities between traditional colonial behaviour and the colonisation of data

Ramanathan spoke of how data is not only a country’s resource, it’s also its knowledge and learnings. 

“We know that data is knowledge, is power, is money and that each step in this continuum has value and so what we’re seeing is that data is [ending up] in the hands of just a few people,” she said.

“The people who own that data then get the most direct benefit whether it’s financial or otherwise.” 

The removal of data without the country’s consent or knowledge can be interpreted as a modern example of traditional colonial behaviour. Only this time it’s being applied to valuable data rather than a country’s natural resources. 

Fighting against it

For those individuals and organisations regularly researching global issues, Ramanathan gave a five-point approach to mitigating the risk of inadvertently playing a part in data colonisation. 

  1. Look at country data ownership and work with the people who are directly involved in its collection. 
  2. Don’t hold data hostage. There’s no excuse for data to be stored in systems that aren’t accessible to all unless that’s what the rightful owners of the data want.  
  3. Work within global open data standards and do what you can to ensure that the data stays in the hands of the people in communities where it has been collected. This means there is local control of not only the data but the knowledge that is generated. 
  4. Look at what it takes to incorporate more collective and inclusive conversations when it comes to the interpretation of the data. 
  5. Think about how to create opportunities for local researchers and social scientists to produce and publicise this data. 

While Ramanathan is the first to admit that the topic is one that’s still emerging, she says it’s an issue that needs to be discussed.   

“I think it’s something we need to really understand – holders of data hold the power, they make the decisions and they reinforce their own privilege,” she said. 

“What happens if we break that cycle? It’s not just about the data, the data is just a means to an end. If we can get data back into the [right] hands we can advocate more powerfully for the global resources that are needed and for design solutions that will work.”  


Nikki Stefanoff  |  Journalist  |  @ProBonoNews

Nikki Stefanoff is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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One comment

  • Avatar Steve Mather says:

    Data is a social construct. Those who define it’s parameters and imbue it with specific meaning are the primary holders of power. The sites of construction and meaning giving are the necessary sites of any struggle for the democratisation of data and its use. Analysis flows from the way a population is framed not the reverse.

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