Reflections: Safe Digital Futures for Children – Data for Change

Envisioning a digital world with the rights of children at the core

It has been a month since Safe Online together with the French Online Child Protection Laboratory and WeProtect Global Alliance met in Paris, France to host the second Safe Digital Futures for Children: Data for Change event.

Safe Online’s experts Serena Tommasino and Natalie Shoup came together to reflect on the event, what the initiative means for the child online safety community and what success looks like.

Q: What does “Safe Digital Futures for Children and Young People” mean?

Natalie: When we came up with the name, we were trying to reflect on alignment of all digital harms against children and a proactive way of building the future, building many futures, actually. We were trying to include the diversity of children’s experiences in the various ways of imagining our future. This also goes back to our own Safe Online mission – and the fact that digital is not necessarily just online. So, for me, Safe Digital Futures was getting at all the different threads we were trying to pull together

Serena: For me, the name is about building the backbone and infrastructure of a safe digital world for all children and young people.  Connectivity is growing and eventually all children will be connected or immersed in digital environments. We are heading towards a future where terms like offline and online will not make sense anymore – we will be immersed in the digital world, and we will not think about it as such. In fact, children of this generation have already made this transition.

The name, therefore, refers to the future digital world we need! A place designed with children’s safety in mind, especially the safety of the most vulnerable groups of children and young people. Today the digital world is designed by and for adults, and this is why we need to envision a future digital world that enables children to navigate with strong and age-appropriate safeguards to prevent risks and threats of violence.

Q: Why is data relevant for a safe digital future?

Serena: The design is the result, but how can we design a safe digital world without knowing how and where children and young people are at risk? The change that we want needs to be informed by comprehensive and quality data and evidence, including the perceptions and voices of children and young people from across the world. We do not only need better and reliable data, but also collaboration, capacity and sustained political support to ensure data is used effectively. This is why we named the initiative ‘data for change’!

The hidden nature of online child sexual exploitation and abuse

How can we make a difference for this and future generation of children without adequate resources?

Natalie: Echoing that, there is currently not only a fragmented data landscape but also fragmented investment in capacity and infrastructure. When we are speaking about data, we are referring to the whole ecosystem. So not just datasets, but also data resources, technical expertise, ethical principles, legal agreements, relationships, technology infrastructure, etc. We need this full picture of data to inform more dynamic systems and anticipatory frameworks so that we are not always reactive. 

Rates of change are increasing for not only how quickly technology is evolving but also how rapidly it is affecting the nature of our daily lives. This is adding complexity to an already massive challenge in keeping children safe online. There is a huge opportunity and need to use data to frame this conversation more proactively and create the groundwork for a shared way forward so that this does not become an ongoing exercise in firefighting but rather in strategically shaping our digital futures. 

Q: What was your experience with data coming into this initiative?

Natalie: This is an interesting question especially considering how everyone in the workshop had diverse expertise and experiences and came in thinking about data from different perspectives. It’s good to reflect on this while thinking about our own experience with data.

I have a background in data science, and I’ve worked a lot with data for social good including thinking about data governance, data privacy and data ethics. I see a lot of potential to find ways to put narratives and learnings from those topics within the context of and in service of child safety.

When we did the first data initiative in 2021 and again this year, I realised there is so much that exists in terms of data governance and data ethics work, and we have an opportunity to learn from other communities doing this work. But I also realised diving into this, that there’s so much that’s so unique about our field – for instance, how technology is intertwined, the sensitivity of much of the data, how the issues evolve so quickly. So, while we can learn from other communities and build on certain things there’s so much that is unique in our space and needs to be done very thoughtfully with people who understand this problem. If we are able to figure some of these things out in collaborative and dynamic ways, that can offer other folks a lot of potential to learn from our space too.

Serena: Every sector or professional, based on their experience and expertise, will see, think and talk about data in a different way and that remains one of the key barriers when we’re trying to align different data sets to create a more comprehensive and harmonised picture. For instance, law enforcement will have their own expectations from data as something that is going to lead them to identify the victim and bring the perpetrator to justice. Academics will focus more on sampling, methodology and quality. Professionals will want easy to use data for programming, policy and advocacy. This variety is a richness, but it’s also a challenge; because it’s about building bridges for people to talk to each other, understand different datasets, terminologies and working modalities and see how to better align efforts across sectors and levels.

Q: What was the biggest challenge and success in organising this workshop?

Natalie: The biggest challenge going into the workshop was striking the right balance in capacities to approach the data landscape effort that came out as a priority from the 2021 convening and was used to inform the conversations for this year’s workshop. The key question was do we bring in data experts and then try to complement the content expertise or do we bring in someone from our ecosystem and try to bolster or find some way to connect them to data expertise so that they’re not starting from scratch.

Our team is a great example of a mix of expertise and perspectives coming together and being able to look at the data ecosystem in collaborative ways with the goal of identifying concrete places to advance this work. We hope to take what we are learning in our team’s experience with these efforts so far to better build bridges and spaces for the wider ecosystem to do the same.

Serena: The biggest success was bringing the right people into the room and creating a safe space for them to share and learn from each other. We are grateful to all the participants who not only joined us but who were willing to be open and very engaged to build a better data ecosystem for child online safety.  

Natalie: I agree, a success for me was the openness with which people approached the workshop and the fact that we heard from people that they came away with new ideas and connections. This group of people have invaluable expertise based on their work and perspectives and coming into the workshop some challenges to current ways of working were presented for people to sit with – of trying to make some shifts in looking at data not in terms of our individual organisational mandates and in silos but instead in more comprehensive and harmonised ways.  By the end of the two days, we heard from many participants that they had changed their minds in some way in how they think about data. Some said, “Maybe I didn’t know everything that I thought I did” or “It’s important for me to see this differently.” This feedback and engagement of the community we brought together was hugely positive for me.

Q: What does the future with this initiative look like?

Natalie: In the longer term, one important focus is creating mechanisms for data governance and seeing that take shape – it is incredibly important in any data ecosystem, and it doesn’t exist for this field as a whole yet. We also want to see shifts in narratives and more inclusion as well. In fact, being intentional about inclusion of different actors that aren’t well represented is an immediate next step and then also over time, having a more inclusive ecosystem as a whole.

Serena: With data, we will be able to quantify, understand and contextualize risks and the extent to which children and young people experience the abuse in order to prevent and disrupt it before it happens. This is what ‘Data for change’ means! Without data this crime will remain invisible, and we would be investing in the dark. Data has the power to make this horrible crime against children visible and to guide us in designing safe digital futures for children and young people. 

Since 2017, Safe Online has invested over USD 76 million across 100 projects in 85 countries. Of this, over USD 20 million has been invested in evidence and data generation.

Images: © Safe Online/Photographer: Rafael Duarte

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