Protecting Data Privacy and Rights During a Crisis are Key to Helping the Most Vulnerable in Our Community

April 28, 2020 | By Amen Ra Mashariki

Governments should protect the data and privacy rights of their communities even during emergencies. It is a false trade-off to require more data without protection. We can and should do both — collect the appropriate data and protect it. Establishing and protecting the data rights and privacy of our communities’ underserved, underrepresented, disabled, and vulnerable residents is the only way we can combat the negative impact of COVID-19 or any other crisis.

Building trust is critical. Governments can strengthen data privacy protocols, beef up transparency mechanisms, and protect the public’s data rights in the name of building trust — especially with the most vulnerable populations. Otherwise, residents will opt out of engaging with government, and without their information, leaders like first responders will be blind to their existence when making decisions and responding to emergencies, as we are seeing with COVID-19.

As Chief Analytics Officer of New York City, I often remembered the words of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, especially with regards to using data during emergencies, that there are “known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns, and we will always get hurt by the unknown unknowns.” Meaning the things we didn’t know — the data that we didn’t have — was always going to be what hurt us during times of emergencies.

“City officials admitted at trial that there were no emergency plans specific to evacuating or providing life-saving services to the most vulnerable population during disasters.” – Disability Rights Advocates,

Case in point, after 2013’s Hurricane Sandy, a federal court ruled that New York City discriminated against vulnerable populations including people experiencing homelessness, the elderly, and disabled in its failure to plan for their needs in large scale disasters. John Watson, a resident of the Coney Island Housing Projects in Brooklyn, testified about living on the ground floor of the housing development, and being flooded during the storm. After his family got rid of all of their soaked belongings they “endured living in a moldy apartment for over two months until the New York City Housing Authority finally moved them into a hotel to make repairs.” Or, like the many stories coming out of Brooklyn’s Gowanus projects, also in a predominantly African-American and Latino neighborhood, where Paula Diaz spoke of how she and other residents, many who were elderly and disabled, were “forcibly confined” to their apartments because the projects went without electricity for weeks. According to a release from Disability Rights Advocates, “expert witnesses testified about major deficiencies in the city’s planning for a wide range of emergencies, including such events as explosions, terrorist attacks, and hurricanes. City officials admitted at trial that there were no emergency plans specific to evacuating or providing life-saving services to the most vulnerable population during disasters.”

It was clear that while the city may have responded to this catastrophe, the leadership knew little about the most vulnerable in the community, including where they lived, their needs and services needed. There could be many reasons for this gap, including 1) limited data sharing capabilities, 2) overly stringent data regulations, and 3) lack of trust in government leaders having access to their information. However, more could have been done before and during that crisis to protect the vulnerable and ultimately have a successful and complete response to the challenges NYC faced during Hurricane Sandy.

There are three key steps that governments can do right now to use data most effectively to respond to emergencies — both for COVID-19 and in the future.

Seek Open Data First

In times of crisis and emergencies, many believe that government and private entities, either purposefully or inadvertently, are willing to trample on the data rights of the public in the name of appropriate crisis response. This should not be a trade-off. We can respond to crises while keeping data privacy and data rights in the forefront of our minds. Rather than dismissing data rights, governments can start using data that is already openly available. This seems like a simple step, but it does two very important things. First, it forces you to understand the data that is already available in your jurisdiction. Second, it grows your ability to fill the gaps with respect to what you know about the city by looking outside of city government. How do you do this?

  • Start with what is on your open data portal and extend to the data that city/state agencies may host on their websites.
  • Look at data from academic institutions in your community that is already public (i.e, research papers, web portals, etc.).
  • Reach out to county, state and federal government partners to get their public data.
  • Work with NGOs in your municipality, who likely have publicly available data.
  • Work with private companies that can make their data available (e.g. Mastercard, Zillow).

The advantage of prioritizing open data is there are already stewards of this information, and it’s likely been used before, or has been vetted to maximize “responsible use.” By using open data during emergencies governments can both improve effectiveness and accountability without infringing rights.

Show Your Work

Reporting to communities how data is being used puts accountability into action and builds trust. It also shows the public how open data can be useful and effective. But, transparency should not just be about open data, but also when using closed or private data sets. This data has been managed or purchased over time. By showing communities and citizens how their data is being used starts to build grounds for trust. Reporting ALL data use on a consistent basis should be a best practice and it will help cross the chasm of trust between citizens and their governments.

Learn from First Responders – Practice, Practice, Practice

First responders constantly train for emergencies. They don’t just create processes to respond to emergencies. They run preparedness drills to understand the best tools, processes, and tactics to utilize during emergencies. They continue to refine these steps; practice further; and report publicly on their efforts. We should do the same for data during emergencies.

I learned this when I participated in a tabletop (simulation) exercise with the Mayor’s office and the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) in NYC. This exercise is a simulated emergency situation where leadership across all city agencies review and discuss the actions they would take in a particular emergency, testing their emergency plan in an informal, low-stress environment. With that in mind, my office, the Office of Data Analytics, developed a concept called “data drills” in conjunction with OEM. A data drill is a multi-agency collaboration exercise that is used to gain greater insight into how a city collectively thinks about, manages, shares, and uses data.

Data drills help cities create a baseline on types of data available, how well agencies work together and build city-wide data practices. Done well, these drills help cities improve their ability to identify, understand, and use data to solve city’s challenges as needed. Data drills also help address privacy concerns around data sharing. It shows which data will likely be used, the data rights implications of that data, and the best way to use it while remaining transparent and accountable. Through practice, we can know when and how to manage data privacy and protect the rights of citizens.

It is not acceptable that the most vulnerable members of our communities remain invisible during emergencies and crises. Government can restore trust with residents to ensure that their data rights are protected and data privacy is taken into consideration — both on a daily basis and during emergencies. This is an important first step to closing the chasm of trust that exists between residents and governments.

Amen Ra Mashariki is a Fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation and is the Global Director of the Data Lab at the World Resources Institute. He is the former Chief Analytics Officer of New York City. Follow him at @amashariki.

Photo by Lianhao Qu on Unsplash