Data Stewardship and Justice with Vinay Narayan of Aapti Institute

By The Data Economy Lab

February 18th, 2023

Vinay Narayan’s interview with Subak on DEL’s data stewardship efforts. This interview originally appeared on the Subak website, and can be accessed here.

Introducing Tributaries with Subak 

Why Tributaries? Tributaries are smaller rivers that act as vital habitats to carry sediment, wildlife and more into larger bodies of water, contributing to the specific conditions that support different species. By bringing diverse voices into Subak, we hope to generate conversation, expand our perspectives, and learn from each other, and have a larger impact on the wider discussion – just as a tributary does on a larger body of water. 

I’m Maisie Kemp, Marketing & Communications Associate at Subak. Last month I had the opportunity to speak with Vinay Narayan, Senior Research Associate at Aapti Institute. Aapti is an India-based public research institution that examines lived experiences at the intersection of technology and society. They generate insights for policy-making and technology development based on grounded research and analysis. Join us as we chat about the work Aapti does, data stewardship, climate justice, accessibility of technology and data, and the importance of grounding data in lived experience to gain rich insight.

Introducing Vinay & Aapti Institute 

Maisie: Thanks again for joining me Vinay. Can you start off by sharing a bit about yourself and your background, and how you came to your current role with Aapti Institute?

Vinay: I’m a lawyer by training, so I worked at a top tier corporate firm in India, and while the focus of my work was largely around general corporate matters in mergers and acquisitions, because the office was based in Bangalore, which is a startup hub in India, a large number of our clients happen to be tech companies. So we got intimately involved with matters relating to tech regulation. And, inevitably, apart from the corporate matters, there was also a lot of advisory work, especially on matters of evolving regulation and policy in India. 

As well as that, I’ve always been interested in technology, that goes back to school when I studied computer science. That’s always something that has fascinated me. Once I started working, I realised that was something I wanted to be doing more actively, so I made the switch from working at a law firm to working in tech policy. After that, once I made the shift to Aapti that focus area got a little more narrow, into looking specifically at data stewardship, and just generally looking at how the value of data can be socialised.

Maisie: Could you just tell me a bit more about what Aapti does? And specifically, how do you approach data and view its role in society as an organisation?

Vinay: So at Aapti we have two verticals. One is called the Digital Public Lab, and the other is the Data Economy Lab. The Digital Public Lab focuses a lot on matters of gov tech, and the interface between technology and human rights. An example of a recent project is an analysis of the Indian COVID vaccination scheme. With this, the government decided initially that most of the registration for vaccination would be done online. The Digital Public Lab completed an analysis of how that affected people as digital access is a big problem in India. With the Data Economy Lab, the focus is broadly on looking at various models of data stewardship that are taking place all over the world. We try and distill key principles and help possible stewards build a roadmap on how they can set themselves up as  data stewards.

So, obviously, data is a big question for us. At Aapti, we recognise the need for data to be available for public value or public good. The way the digital economy is currently structured means that data is largely siloed in the hands of private firms. While there is a possibility of access, in many cases, that access comes at a very high cost, or in some cases, there is no access at all. So for us, we look at data as a very critical tool in being able to shape our society and being able to tackle a lot of the issues that we’re facing on many, many fronts. 

But we also understand that there is an important need to recognise that that data is coming from somebody, it’s coming from people, it’s coming from communities, and so it also presents insights and learnings about them. So there’s a need to protect their rights and interests, there’s also a need to give people in communities some value for their data, but at the same time, ensure that it’s also available for public use. That’s where we see data stewardship efforts really coming into play, and seek to be able to bridge this gap. 

Data’s often looked at as this vague thing that’s detached from people, but also, a lot of people look at it in isolation. The thing with data is that it’s also in many ways, relational, in that it describes relations between people, between people and things. 

Contextualizing climate data with on the ground realities 

Maisie: Do you have a project that you’re working on at the moment that is particularly exciting for you? 

Vinay: My current project is in partnership with the Open Data Institute (ODI) in London, and it’s being funded by the Global Partnership for AI. The report for this can be accessed here. It follows on from some work that Aapti and the ODI did in the past looking at the landscape for Data Trusts. This project is trying to bridge that gap between theory and practice, and to evaluate the feasibility of bottom up Data Trust pilots for climate action. 

The specific use case I’m working on is the possibility of a Data Trust for small shareholder farmers in India. Our initial scoping for the project involved researching areas that contribute to climate change and to see where there’s a possibility of data playing a role in mitigation. One thing that kept popping up was agriculture. But then you come down to the ground level and speak to the farmers, and the reality is so different. So it’s also really important to try and bridge that gap between theory and practice. It was also really interesting for me personally, to try and evaluate the applicability of something as innovative as data trusts, but in a very different global South context where on-the-ground realities are a lot more different. 

We did find that a bottom up Data Trust in India with small shareholder farmers was going to be infeasible, largely because of issues related to incentives. So the farmers themselves aren’t particularly too concerned about climate change as long as it doesn’t affect their crop yield. It’s not effective for an outsider to come in and tell them about this, especially when smallholder farmers in India are an extremely low income group. In the words of one farmer, he said, they have a million other things to do, if you go up to them and tell them that they need to keep a record of all the things that they do, all the stuff they use, and then have to input it onto a digital platform, they’re going to very kindly ask you to leave. I think it was really illuminating in showing the importance of looking at what the need at the ground level is first. 

I did a slightly similar project at Aapti which assessed the impact of policy developments in India around digital regulation on the agriculture sector. A key thread through that was that a lot of these policies were framed in a top down manner, and that they excluded consultation with key stakeholders, especially farmers. A plain example of this is the fact that the main policy documents for this are only in English, or at best in Hindi, whereas, at the ground level, many farmers in South India, for example, don’t have a grasp of either English or Hindi. So it effectively meant that policy documents about them, that would affect their lives and their livelihood, were just inaccessible. So I think this is something that is important to remember, this need to ensure that you are speaking to the people who will at the end of the day be affected by these policies, and by this data.

Maisie: Yeah, I think that’s the whole thing with climate action. There is this disconnect between the realities of the people who perhaps are being affected then being excluded from the conversations that impact them. That’s why climate justice is so important. Leading on from this, how important do you think data is in facilitating more just and more equitable climate action going forward?

Vinay: I think it’s really, really important. The value of data, AI, and machine learning cannot be understated. But I think the problem is that, again, it goes back to a question of data availability. Data’s issue is it’s usually siloed in the hands of private players. So, it’s more a question of how we can unlock all of that data first. 

Data stewardship 

Maisie: Can you explain what data stewardship is, and tell me about the work that Aapti is doing in that area?

Vinay: Data stewardship is basically different forms of data governance which help people and communities exercise some sort of control over their data, and control over who the data is shared with, and what purposes it is used for, while also giving some value to them for the data. And importantly, also making this data available for public good.

So the first thing we do at Aapti is to speak to as many different models of data stewards as we can. Most of these tend to be either in Europe or in North America. But we’re also seeing a lot more examples of this point in the Global South, be it in Latin American countries, in Africa, or even in Asia as well. With those conversations, our aim is to understand their circumstances. What is it that led to them setting up the data steward in the first place? What are the things that they wanted to address through the means of a data steward, and how are they going about it? Through this, we’ve developed a mapper as well as a navigator. It’s to guide potential data stewards through the various foundational decisions and structural concentrations that they have to look at. 

Maisie: You’re working predominantly in the Global South. So it’s interesting to me that you’re also working with the ODI in London, for example, or other UK-based organisations. I wonder if you could just go into a bit more depth about any nuances in the way that the global North approaches data stewardship, versus perhaps the global South? 

Vinay: Something that we’ve learned is that the approach is slightly different, because our context is so different. With the global North, there’s more of an understanding amongst people about data and data literacy. There’s also a reason why a lot of the efforts – and not all of them – but there are a lot more bottom up efforts that we see popping up in the global North, as opposed to the global South. And when I say, bottom up, I mean it in the purest sense of people coalescing together, as opposed to an interested NGO or a civil society organisation, going out and reaching out to people to try and get them to coalesce. 

While we do see some very, very impressive data stewardship efforts and initiatives in the global South, I think the general environment is a little more difficult because this also relies on there to be certain infrastructure in place. In India, for example, we have terrible Internet connectivity in the rural areas. So while it’s something that the government is trying to address, it will take some time. Therefore, questions about data or about data stewardship, have to be contextualised against having to set up that infrastructure to begin with. These questions of access are also very important to consider.

Present policymakers with digestible, data-driven and solution-led recommendations 

Maisie: Could you explain the relationship that you have with engaging with policy as an organisation? And could you share any tips or insights on how you communicate your data to make influence?

Vinay: One part is responding to calls for public comments on policies, which we have done quite a bit. The other way is through our research work. What we do is to work with our funders to present our key report recommendations to people in the government, people who have authority over policymaking decisions, to try and show them the effect of the policy that needs to be put in place. One thing we have realised we have to say things in a way that is more easily digestible by the government. Being overly critical can also be a problem, so it’s about finding that spot where you both acknowledge the challenges that the government has, but also highlight the things that need to be changed. 

We find that in comms that we provide to the government, it’s not about identifying problems, but to provide possible solutions and also to point them possibly to instances where the data governance may be happening in a better way in other parts of the world. So it helps to approach policymakers in the spirit of collaboration, rather than being negative, in terms of working with the government and providing them with possible solutions and examples. 

Open data doesn’t necessarily mean equitable data 

Maisie: Previously you touched on the importance of open data, so I was wondering if you could talk a bit more to that point, particularly in relation to stewardship and climate justice? 

Vinay: It’s really important for there to be public access to data. But I think there are also some problems with the notion of open data and open technology generally. 

I think the problem that I see is that with data there is also an issue of access to technology, literacy to use the technology, and being able to make use of that data. Inevitably what we see happening is that simply making something open doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s equitable or that there is an aspect of justice to it. In a lot of cases, what happens is the people who can access it tend to be private companies who already have large troves of data and who are able to take this and just build it onto what they already have, whilst they continue to keep a lot of things proprietary. 

I think a great example of this is a big debate under the Convention of Biodiversity. It’s really a question that comes down to the provision, in the Kyoto Protocol, about access and benefit sharing, and it’s a question of what constitutes enough sharing of benefits. A lot of global North countries have said that simply making the resource available on an open platform constitutes enough sharing of benefits, but that’s not really enough use to people in the global South who may not even have the ability to make use of that data, even though those learnings and the data has been collected from them. Inevitably what happens is you see large companies just hoovering up that data. 

So, open data is extremely important, I think it’s very important to make as much data available, of course under privacy and rights preserving terms, in the public realm, so that as many people as possible have access to it. But, I think alongside this we also need to tackle the issue of accessibility to data and to technologies that can enable someone to learn anything from data. 

Maisie: It’s very easy to just say ‘yes it is important’, but you’re right that it’s much more nuanced than that. I think maybe those conversations about accessibility and equity don’t get discussed as much as they should. 

Vinay: Something that we haven’t fully explored at Aapti yet, but we do want to, is how a lot of this conversation ties back to climate justice. As we’ve seen a lot of this data can be used for people to help people tackle climate issues that they are facing. 

Collaboration across the spectrum of data stakeholders 

Maisie: You mentioned that approaching policymakers in the spirit of collaboration is important, but generally how important is collaboration in your work at Aapti? 

Vinay: It’s extremely important. An approach that we consciously take is to build a network of partners. Because what also happens is that learnings from some sectors are very much transferable to other sectors and that doesn’t necessarily happen too often. So maybe something that a data cooperative working on mobility data learns can be extremely useful for a data union that’s working for fishermen. 

A lot of our work also relies upon real world examples and on real world experiences, and that’s part of what makes Aapti’s work rich – it’s built on a lot of collaborative work done by a lot of people. For example, us working with the ODI – that cross-continental collaboration helps us to gain insight and also them to gain insight from different lived experiences. I think another way to phrase that would be collaboration with people on all levels of the data value chain. I think that’s crucial, otherwise your policies are not going to be well-informed and the impacts will be one-sided. 

Remembering the Pale Blue Dot 

Maisie: My last question to really summarise what we have discussed, do you have any sayings or mantras that you go by personally, or resonate with your work at Aapti? 

Vinay: It’s not my saying, but something I find myself often going back to is the short paragraphs by Carl Sagan called Pale Blue Dot. I find it helps me re-centre and re-focus. This was back in the 1990s when the space shuttle Voyager One was sent out as far into the solar system as possible, and Carl Sagan asked NASA to take a picture of earth. The space shuttle was turned back towards earth and a photo was taken. There was a beam of light, and in that earth is smaller than a pixel. It’s just a tiny pale blue dot. He wrote what to me is a very stirring small piece along with it. 

At the end he says it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot that is the only home we’ve ever known. It just really reminds us of the scale of things, all happening in this pale blue dot.