Monday, August 12, 2013

Who owns the Data? Sharing and knowledge in the social sciences

Early in my academic career, as a fresh assistant professor who had the privilege to be introduced to strong networks of industry professionals by my Professors, I once found myself in the midst of an ethical quandary.

I had worked with a private organisation and worked through a nationally robust dataset to arrive at what I felt some pretty interesting conclusions: That mainstream health campaigns often reach out to those that are already healthy was one of the conclusions of this work. Therefore, I concluded, large numbers of health campaigns, with an information-driven focus and with emphasis on information-based channels, are often likely to reach out to those that are already healthy. It is somewhat the problem of preaching to the choir. Now, I thought these conclusions were novel and was truly excited about them.

What followed after the piece was published however was something I didn't expect. My research contact at the organisation wrote a  stern email to me, perhaps forgetfully including the long thread of emails from the organisation's leadership asking for the partnership to be terminated. That was one of my early insights into the politics of academic research. That research is often framed to serve the agendas of the status quo was one of the early insights that I had gleaned from this experience and that later continued to be confirmed through various other experiences in the social sciences. The irony in this scenario lies in the presumed role of research in serving the status quo rather than in interrogating the taken for granted assumptions, grounded in data.

The leadership of the organisation would probably have been happy had I concluded, irrespective of what the data suggested, that health interventions work. This was after all the business they were in, the business of doing interventions. And for this business, asking critical questions, or asking principled questions grounded in "good science" were unacceptable.

I have since learned much more about the politics of funding. Who funds the research has a lot to do with the nature of the work one can do, the constraints within which the work operates, and the questions of ethics that are raised by the work.

Now what happens when the funder of the work is the state? For state funded work, it is the money of the taxpayer that is at work here. So who owns the data that is gathered through state funded work? Is it the state agency funding the work? Or is it the public? If it is the public that is funding the work through the state, what is the accountability of state agencies in making the work public? More importantly, if the data are funded by the state, should the data not then be made available to the public? Making data publicly available also keeps the state-funded social sciences accountable to the public. I would hope that the kind of answer that emerged from my earlier work would not be censored by the state because the state by nature ought to be accountable to the public. I would also hope that such findings would catalyse the state to reconsider its efforts of investing large sums in ad agencies and PR firms for carrying out information-driven messages. I would hope that such data would question the very ideology of information-driven health communication campaigns where the powerful sender diffuses the health innovation to the recipient and the role of the agency is to come up with sexy messages that would fill the information deficit.

But this is where the realm of practice across states varies dramatically. So although India has funded large scale data gathering initiatives, these data are not easily accessible in the public. The same holds for many other countries. In the absence of such data, it is next to impossible to question state policies and programs, the success of such policies or programs, the effectiveness of the dollars spent, and/or the values that guide the policies and programs put into place. For a progressive model of governance, it is important to make data available for public participation. By working with and through such data the public are able to co-participate in the processes of knowledge production and in the creation of solutions that are grounded in the data.

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