Michele ErnstingFebruary 22, 2019

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RNW Media is a Netherlands-based NGO that gives young people a voice in restrictive societies across the Middle East, as well as North and Sub-Saharan Africa. RNW works with local partners to nurture online communities of youth to take part in robust, safe, and respectful discourse. These online communities support freedom of expression, social inclusion, and civic participation. But RNW Media has potential beyond their online community.

What if these online discussions offered a space for governments to receive citizen feedback at scale? Young people are the experts on their own lives, and they have critical opinions about their lives and societies that decision-makers (including government officials and civic leaders) need to hear.

Using young people’s online engagement and feedback, RNW can advocate for policy change that supports citizen’s needs.

Focusing on creating an ethical, effective citizen feedback strategy for their online platform, RNW Media asked the LabStorm community how to best collect representative data and how to use it ethically. Here is what LabStorm attendees said:

  1. Data doesn’t have to be perfect to be useful. RNW strives to collect data that accurately represents the communities they serve. But of course, online data sets aren’t perfect. Certain demographics may be under-represented, or there is a risk of social desirability bias if users comment their opinions under their real names. As a result, it is hard to tell if online data sets are representative. That is okay! No data set is perfect. The best way to get representative data is to pull together multiple streams: online activity, anonymous surveys and in-person interviews. From these multiple data streams, RNW Media can look for common trends and differences. LabStorm attendees reminded us the most important element when dealing with imperfect data – to close the loop. Taking findings back to constituents and having a conversation around the results can have a dramatic and important impact on next steps. Does this data line up with real lived experience? Did we capture what you said? Does this feel right? Building in this feedback loop can verify or question the validity of RNW’s data conclusions.
  2. Consider the power dynamics of surveys. In order to collect more accurate data, another strategy is to consider the psychology and power dynamics that elicit the most honest survey responses. Social desirability bias may lead participants to respond in the way that they think they are supposed to respond, rather than how they truly feel. To eliminate this bias, RNW media can structure questions in ways that make survey participants feel safe and gives them some degree of anonymity. It may be as simple as anonymity from their peers on the site, or as serious as a completely anonymous survey that does not collect any demographic data about the respondent.
  3. Be transparent about data practices. Privacy is important for RNW community members, especially because many of them are discussing issues that are taboo or controversial in their countries. Data ethics is therefore an important part of RNW’s strategy. Currently, RNW Media uses cookies and tells users that their data may be used for advocacy purposes. However, they can improve their transparency by featuring a page on the website that states the goals of their data collection and explains how they will use the data they collect. Additionally, when RNW investigates politically-contentious issues, they can make surveys anonymous to protect respondents. These data practices improve the likelihood that citizens will participate and feel safe on the RWN website.

This LabStorm reminded us of the complexities of online data collection and the importance of constituent privacy. Are you an expert in data collection in contentious environments? Please share your expertise in the comments below, or by emailing [email protected].

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