Part of the ODI’s theory of change

At the Open Data Institute we use a theory of change. It is one of the tools that we use internally to help us make decisions and externally to explain to people what we do and how we do it.

Our theory of change describes the farmland, oilfield and wasteland futures and helps us try to steer between the extremes of the oilfield and wasteland futures to get to the farmland.

The wasteland future emerges when there are unaddressed fears arising from legitimate concerns — such as who has access to data and how it might be used.

We frequently talk through the theory of change to explain what we do and how we do it. We try to provide pauses in the conversation to get other people to give their opinions. It helps people to think and learn for themselves. It helps us learn too. We hear what other people think happens in the wasteland future. How they think people and organisations will react to their fears being unaddressed.

Most of us the people we talk with think that the wasteland future has a lack of data. They realise that with a lack of trust then many people and organisations will reduce how much data they share. They imagine people refusing to use services because they don’t trust them, and that organisations similarly refuse to share data because they fear being punished. They think the data stops flowing.

A smaller group of people realise the wasteland is more complex and weird. People’s behaviour will change in many different ways. Humans are fun like that.

Some people might post inaccurate data. Perhaps you will post fake claims of jogging exploits to social media if it is the only way to get a fair life insurance deal. Other people will hide in the data. Maybe we will give our children common names so they are hard to identify or so they appear to be from an ethnic group that is not discriminated against.

Similarly businesses will feel the need to create fake data. Organisations that fear that their supply chain data is being captured and used unfairly by their competitors might start to create ever more complex corporate structures to hide the data. Obviously reducing the chance of this unfair behaviour will also make it harder for regulators and civil society to know if a business is acting fairly.

I’m sure that even if you hadn’t thought of them at first you can now think of many more things that happen in the wasteland future.

You can see some of this future now. There are already people and organiastion hiding in the flows of data. Some of those people need and deserve help to hide because they have a genuine fear of harm, perhaps due to their political beliefs, ethnicity or sexuality. Equally there are others who are trying to evade fair scrutiny, for example tax dodgers and other criminals, and organisations providing services to help them do so. But if we increasingly fear harm then more people will want and need these services and, inevitably, they will become ever cheaper and used by more of us.

As this behaviour becomes widespread we will see data that is massively biased and misleading. People and organisations that use data-enabled services to tackle global challenges such as global warming, to price a life insurance premium in a way that doesn’t unfairly discriminate, or to decide whether or not to take a job will struggle. That would not be good for any of us.

Navigating the a route between the wasteland future and a different future where we get more economic and social value from data will not be easy. There will always be some people who need to pollute and hide in data to protect themselves from harm, we need to allow that to happen. Understanding and addressing people’s fears is not only a technical challenge, it is also a social and political one. To retain trust we need businesses and governments to adapt to people’s ever-changing expectations in a range of cultural contexts.

An increasing fear of how data is used will not simply stop people using services or sharing data, it will change peoples behaviour in a range of ways. If that happens we can expect data to be increasingly poor quality, biased and misleading. And that pollution will make data less useful to help people, communities and organisations make decisions that hold the potential to improve all of our lives. Some of that potential is false — the use of data required is too scary and people do not want or need it — but that is why it is important to understand and address the concerns we can if societies are to navigate towards the farmland.

You can read more about the ODI’s strategy and theory of change on our site.