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Engage with key stakeholders

Most common challenges will have lots of people working away at them from different angles and perspectives. This is great in some ways as it means there is clearly a problem to be solved, but it might also mean that efforts are not as coordinated as they could be, or progress cannot be made as quickly as it should.
Stakeholder engagement is a vital part of designing a data access initiative. Initiatives need to co-create data infrastructure with stakeholders across the ecosystem. This means efforts to engage these stakeholders will need to be planned in order to understand which data infrastructure needs to be built or strengthened.
Some stakeholders in the initiative may be focused on data collection and management, while others design standards and APIs for better sharing. Others may build services using the data being made accessible. Finally, some stakeholders within the ecosystem may have little to do with data infrastructure itself, but bring subject matter expertise, or amplify the issues and concerns of those affected by the infrastructure, which it needs to align with. It is important to identify and interview as many stakeholders as you can to start understanding the initiative’s data ecosystem.

Identify your stakeholders

Drawing on the stakeholders you have come across in your initial research, identify key individuals to invite for interviews, as a starting point. It is likely that those initial stakeholders will provide you with more contacts to speak to. We recommend interviewing stakeholders in parallel to conducting desk research.
Questions that might help you to identify key stakeholders:
  • Who are the people affected by the problem?
  • Who are the people already doing work on the topic/problem?
  • Who are the people and organisations who might respond to the challenge?
  • Who might have relevant data? Who is actually using this data?
  • Who are the decision makers?
  • Who are the policy makers and regulators involved?
  • Which civil society organisations or funders might get involved?

Run interviews and snowball through additional interviews

The aim of these interviews is to verify, challenge, refine and expand on the information you have drawn together through desk research or direct further research. Use the material you have already gathered as a prompt to ask for more detail, to fill in gaps and to hear alternative perspectives. The idea of ‘snowballing’ is to ask others for suggestions for datasets, other stakeholders to engage with, and to start identifying regulatory barriers. The interviews can be conducted online, over the phone or face-to-face.
It is useful to use a standard set of questions (an interview guide) so you can compare responses more effectively and ensure that the same general areas of information are collected from each interviewee. This provides more focus than an ad hoc or conversational approach, but still allows a degree of freedom and adaptability in getting information from the interviewee.
Depending on the problem and the type of data your initiative is trying to improve access to, implementing a participatory process (for example, using workshops, roundtables or public consultations) might be needed to understand the context, the role of data in tackling the problem, and the additional resources required to address users’ needs. You might also plan meetings and host ‘improbable dialogues’ involving organisations, communities or individuals in the ecosystem that might not normally interact or work together, encouraging them to explain their needs and support further engagement (for example, community members impacted by the data infrastructure in conversation with the technologists designing it).
Special focus: Equitable and inclusive user research
User research will be a core activity of your data landscape review. Running interviews, workshops and roundtables are excellent ways to get expert opinion, a plurality of views, and dynamic feedback. However, you should note that it is easier for people and groups with more time and money to donate that time to these types of user research. Relying solely on this approach might limit the scope of research participants you get and, more importantly, skew your results – you may end up addressing the needs of those who have enough time and resources to participate in this way, and not necessarily the most vulnerable. To help combat this, it is important to foreground those users who may not otherwise be able to participate, perhaps by beginning with their standpoints, and allow for more flexible and varied forms of user research.
When conducting equitable and inclusive user research to build data infrastructure, initiatives might consider:
  • contacting a diverse range of users through different channels
  • including user research from the start and at different stages
  • questioning the values and assumptions that guide us
  • reflecting on the power dynamics between researchers and participants
  • reflecting on the biases of yourself and your organisation.