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The effect of digital nudges on the willingness to donate data

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Data donation is the sharing of data in order to contribute to the common good. They describe individuals voluntarily sharing detailed, possibly personal data with third parties (e.g. researchers or non-governmental organisations) and giving their informed consent for their data to be used for a public interest purpose [1], [2].

Data donation can be used to find solutions to societal challenges such as medical research [1] or the promotion of sustainable food purchases [3] can be developed.

However, insufficient donation rates are often a major challenge for (data) donation projects [3]. Current research is therefore looking at how behaviour-based approaches, interventions and nudging can increase the willingness to donate data.

For example, Pilgrim and Bohnet-Joschko [4] successfully promoted the decision to donate self-reported health data through the use of digital forced-choice nudges – i.e. participants had to make a decision. In order to increase donation rates, data could be donated by default, so that individuals would have to actively decide not to donate. This seems particularly promising because experience has shown that defaults are the most effective form of nudging [5].

Nudging should always be used to promote behavioural changes that lead to an increase in the common good [5]. However, the disclosure of personal data for research purposes is a complex and individual decision. Therefore, data donation by default should be viewed in an ethically critical light [6].

Instead of influencing the decision to donate data through pre-selection, the significance of the decision options and their respective consequences can be made clear by designing the decision-making situation as an active process. With a responsible nudge design, data subjects can be enabled to make informed decisions about their data sharing [7]. In this design, an interface for customising privacy settings has been successful in stimulating reflection, making the settings made more consistent with the individual privacy-related values of data subjects.

In contexts where responsible design enables an informed decision, the way in which information and appeals to donate data are presented is also relevant. There are initial research findings on this [4], [8], [9]. Personalised approaches with tailored messages appear promising, as very different motivations and values can influence the willingness to donate data [10], [11].

Donors may be altruistically motivated to donate, but may also benefit from doing so [10]for example, by gaining knowledge from the donated data or through advances in medical research. These personal motivations must be weighed against privacy concerns.

In addition to defaults, an increase in salience and message framing, there are many other nudges whose effect on the willingness to donate data has not yet been comprehensively researched. The bidt project DataDonations4SustainableChange is an example of a research project with such a focus.

Comparability with analogue phenomena

A well-known example of the effect of nudges on donation behaviour is the disparity in organ donation rates between countries [12]. In countries where citizens are registered by default for organ donation in the event of death and must actively opt out of organ donation, the proportion of organ donors is higher than in countries where people must actively opt in to organ donation [5], [12]. One explanation is that in such defaults, people tend to favour the status quo over change and therefore often opt for the pre-selected option [13]. This phenomenon applies equally in the analogue and digital space. The principles of multiplicity also apply to the donation of data [14] and non-rivalry [15]. This means that lossless duplication is possible, i.e. the data can exist in several places at the same time and be shared without being used up. This enables potential donors, for example, to donate their data to several organisations at the same time without suffering any disadvantage.

When donating data, not only altruistic but also selfish motivations are conceivable [10]. In the same way, blood donors, for example, can benefit indirectly from the donation system if they ever need a blood transfusion themselves. In both cases, a personal relevance of the intended use can lead to an increased willingness to donate [16], [17].

Despite similar processes in the decision for or against a donation, different aspects must be weighed up for physical goods than for the donation of data. Privacy concerns and the immateriality of data are aspects that are specific to the donation of digital goods and therefore nudges may interact with other dynamics. Further research is needed on this.

Social relevance

Data can be used for a wide range of goals in the public interest, to achieve scientific progress or to design effective interventions to improve the common good. Especially in application contexts with difficult data availability, data donation is a promising approach to address societal challenges such as medical research [1], [18], [19], [20], improvement of healthcare [16], [17], [21], sovereignty over platform algorithms [22] or the reduction of food waste [23] .


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