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Data Ethics Week: Collecting Demographic Data with Care by Inti Chomsky

Hi! I’m Inti Chomsky, an Associate at Informing Change, a strategic learning and evaluation firm based in Berkeley, California. Our team is frequently tasked with drafting surveys and analyzing that data for our clients. Often, our surveys include a set of demographic information questions as part of our standard practice; we typically disaggregate the data by demographics when appropriate as part of our analysis. However, as a company we’ve recently taken a step back to examine our practices and assumptions about collecting this type of information.

Demographic information (e.g., gender and racial identity, sexual orientation, age, disability status, etc.) can be a vital part of an evaluation. However, there are ethical considerations in the decision to collect or not collect this type of information and how this kind of data is collected and used. I wanted to share some of our team’s thinking and what we’ve heard from others (and invite your thoughts!).

Hot Tips for collecting demographic data ethically:
  • Determine whether it is truly necessary to collect this information.
  • Clearly define the purpose of collecting demographic information within your team, with your clients, and to potential respondents. Are you planning to disaggregate your results by race, gender, age, etc., and use those findings in your reports? Is the purpose only to show the demographic distribution of your respondents? Once you’ve decided on this, let your respondents know how you plan to use the data! You can include a short sentence that explains your reasoning for asking for this information.
  • Demographic information is private and sensitive because it concerns aspects of an individual’s identity, which may be part of a legally protected class. Consider making your data collection anonymous, de-identify it, and secure it during analysis.
  • For each question, offer space for an open-ended/write-in option and/or an opt-out response choice (e.g., decline to state, I don’t know, prefer not to say). The data collection process can be uncomfortable for respondents because many pre-defined demographic categories (like race or gender) are socially constructed and can be limiting.
  • Also consider allowing users to select multiple options.
  • Using only write-in or open-ended responses carries its own set of ethical considerations when analyzing and reporting the data. Think ahead of time of how you plan to report and aggregate the data if the responses fall outside the typically reported categories.
  • Use the data! If you’ve decided to collect it, make sure the data is featured in your analysis and reporting to justify its collection in the first place.

Rad Resources

  • You can learn more about collecting demographic data ethically and other aspects of data ethics in our Data Ethics Guidebook (for demographics specifically, refer to the section on Implementation) and Toolkit (Story 6 from the Stories in the Field raises a real-world scenario regarding demographic data collection).
  • The folks over at Team Dynamics have put out a sample demographic form.
  • Candid and CHANGE Philanthropy shared a guide for organizations working on collecting their own demographic data.

The American Evaluation Association is hosting Data Ethics Week.Would you like to submit an AEA365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to AEA365@eval.org. AEA365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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