Is there a way to collect social identity data without infringing on the rights of those you’re collecting it from?
Yes, there is. In fact, not asking the question is actually closer to a human rights violation than asking it. Really. So why are so many social service organizations reluctant to ask the populations they serve about age, gender identity, or ethnic heritage?
It’s all about asking the right questions — for the right reasons.
Who Are You Serving?
Data collection and analysis are finally beginning to garner the attention they deserve in the social sector. Nonprofits, social service agencies, and governments are gathering and examining data to gain an understanding of how effective their programs and services are, and how they could be delivered more efficiently.
One particularly important aspect of this analysis goes beyond simply understanding whether or not your efforts are helping people and focuses on which people, specifically, you are helping most (and which groups are still vulnerable and in need of different kinds of support).
Of course, to find out who in your user population is getting the best support and who is being overlooked, you will need to collect data on the different individuals you serve — data like gender identity, age, ethnic heritage, and more. This is where a lot of organizations I work with balk: surely they can’t ask such sensitive (and potentially offensive) questions?
Count Me In!
Many groups I’ve worked with have actually expressed concerns that collecting and using this type of sensitive data violates the human rights of the people they serve. This couldn’t be further from the truth. You violate someone’s human rights when you discriminate against them on the basis of their answer to these types of questions.
For example, if you deliberately prevented the elderly — or people transitioning from male to female, or people of Polynesian descent — from accessing your services or programs, you would be violating their rights. So what is the best way to ensure you meet the needs of everyone in the population you aim to serve?
Find out who they are.
You can’t make accommodations for exceptions you don’t know exist. You can’t adapt your programming to better serve your users unless you fully understand their specific requirements.
The Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies makes some great points about why we, as a society, have historically been uncomfortable with collecting racial data and also how much of an impact it can have on vulnerable groups of children:
“By not collecting, analyzing, and reporting data, our system can ignore its own role in perpetuating the systemic racism experienced by these communities.”
Guidelines for Collecting Social Identity Data
The Ontario Human Rights Commission has published a very helpful guide on the ins and outs of collecting social identity data in a respectful way: how to do it, when to do it, and why you should.
They point out that collecting social identity data can help:
- Identify (or verify) issues, theories, and perceptions and proactively address them
- Measure progress or take advantage of opportunities
- Build trust and encourage respectful consultation
- Secure the support of stakeholders
- Reduce exposure to lawsuits or human rights complaints
These benefits can be yours if you collect social identity data in a way that is respectful and that furthers your organization’s ability to serve your audience. There is no one method that guarantees this, but rather, some general principles you should follow:
- Observe the rules. Make sure you collect data in a way that is consistent with local human rights regulations. Examine the purpose of your data collection and whether or not it will help you better serve the community you are working with.
- Be transparent. Inform the public of why you are collecting social identity data, what you plan to do with it, how it will be collected, and what steps you will take to protect sensitive information and individual privacy.
- Don’t intrude. Collect your data in the least intrusive way possible, taking steps to respect the privacy of those from whom you are requesting information. Be sure to inform respondents their participation is voluntary.
- Protect privacy. Distinguish between collection, use, and disclosure of information. Ensure personally identifying information is removed wherever possible, and secure your data against intruders.
Need Data Collection Assistance?
Not sure about collecting social identity data for your team? Do you need assistance gathering data for your nonprofit or social sector organization?
At Datassist, we have a team of experts who will help you collect, analyze, utilize and share the data you need in a way that is respectful to the community you work with and engaging to your audience. Get in touch today to discuss your project.