Open Data, Bigly

Niklas Morberg on Flicr. CC by A

More and more data is being made available for the public. It is also an important tool for international development. But as we create more and more impressions – location, searches, likes – how do make sure privacy is protected? Especially in emerging markets where digital education, privacy laws have not been tested until more recently?

Meikle* (2016) breaks down the concept of social media into five key words in order to make it more understandable. They are networked, database, platform, public and personal communication. It has become a catch-all term but the digital processes and social behaviours behind it are nonetheless complex, and can be leveraged in different ways. As Meikle puts it, ‘Not all contemporary internet phenomena are social media’. Wikipedia, Uber, Netflix etc are not necessarily social, but what is interesting is that many of these Web 2.0 services, if not all, are reliant on databases. 

This final blog post will touch on how databases can be used for international development and how opening up the data contained within to developers can have rather positive effects.

A lot of work is currently being to create an open data community. One example such as the the Code4Kenya project ‘an outreach initiative, supporting intermediaries to work with datasets and to develop applications and services which make data more accessible’. It has 430 Government data sets that are open to the public.

Another example being the recent Open Data Festival held in Myanmar. Much of the work is centred around opening up ministerial data sets, or that of international development projects. ‘Open data also offers opportunities to better evaluate, monitor, and respond to the initiatives of other development partners, including private sector’ says the Mekong region open data Wikipage.

But where I think a lot of potential lies is in the practical application of open databases from other sources. In a previous post I touched on how Uber shares its trip data publically. Whilst that may have not yielded the results people were hoping, the experiment serves as a model for the future.

Once the private sector takes seriously the promise of the ‘innovation and business growth potential open data can unlock’, then resources will be funnelled towards it. Yes there will be fears over security, privacy and the for-profit agenda of private businesses, but these can be overcome once trust is built.

Source: Deloitte LLP Open Data Ecosystem Via Urbantide.com

I think that purely relying on the SDG process and Government involvement will mean that open data will not see the speed of change that is required. Of course, leveraging the private sector is already happening, and that will make these championed open data ‘ecosystems’ a lot more green. The there also need to be checks and balances, which is why creating a healthy culture of sharing databases, make it social will really make it a success.

 
*Meikle, G. 2016: Social Media: Communication, Sharing and Visibility. Abingdon: Routledge.

Has there been a ‘data revolution’ for a post-2015 world?

Ehpien on Flickr CC by A

Back in 2014 work for research centres and think-tanks was to provide input and analysis of how the world will deal with the end of the troublesome Millennium Development Goals and the advent of ‘post-2015’.

To me it always felt like post-2015 was the unknown, a tabula rasa for international development cooperation. Ushering the new dawn was to be the so-called data revolution, shedding light onto the state of the developing world.

The problem being that, as Jerven says to succinctly in the introduction to Poor Numbers, ‘technocrats, donors, and international organizations that may abort, change, or initiate policies based on very feeble statistics’.

It seems that many of the failings of development policy were being put at the door of the statisticians, and the narrative is that parts of the world are still in the dark.

Writing on the subject a piece by think-tank ECDPM’s Florian Krätke says that: ‘Accurate, timely, relevant and available data and statistics in many cases simply don’t exist, particularly on households and individuals. With donors becoming increasingly concerned with measuring results, calls for more and better data are increasing.’

Tech Crunch

Now we are into the era of the global Sustainable Development Goals – or Global Goals – how exactly do you monitor them? Who measures them? And what determines success?

Enter the idea of the data revolution.

In August 2014 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked an Independent Expert Advisory Group to make concrete recommendations on bringing about a data revolution in sustainable development.

In November 2014 a report was published by the Group that made specific recommendations to tackle what it sees at two main problems:

  • The challenge of invisibility, for instance gaps in what we know and when we know it.
  • The challenge of inequality including the gaps between those who know and those who do not know what they need to know make their own decisions.

Since the report the world has indeed seen huge leaps in terms of not only the amount of data being collected, but also the amount that is being made available publically. That is to say that with the proliferation of communications technology into every aspect of society (developing and developed) the amount of data has increased exponentially – and people are doing really interesting things with it.

Commercially, at least. Curiously, location based information has seen the most innovation. Transport for London allows most, if not all, of its data freely available to developers, fuelling a boom in the app economy and benefiting commuters. Citymapper, Uber and other companies all collaborate to some degree with third parties.

Today, there is too progress being made on data for the SDGs, especially at the higher level. National Statistical Offices (NSOs) met recently to ‘discuss how to promote the use (and re-use) of available SDG-related data sets and how to make them more widely available and accessible across data ecosystems’. It was, according to this tweet by Bill Anderson:

Most significant advance in the #DataRevolution to date. @UNStats & @Data4SDGs join forces on #interoperability

This is interesting because one of the main challenges of the data revolution is that complexity has risen alongside. More resources are needed to ‘unlock the power of data’ – including the existing data we already have.

So yes, it could be said that the importance of statistics and statisticians has grown too. They are the gatekeepers in the brave new world post-data revolution.

However much of the grunt work is now being done by computers. A live blog from the forum notes that ‘In the US many civic decisions are being left to algorithms now.’ This means that crunching the numbers of big data is an overwhelming task, which may lead to unseen failures. Particularly as ‘The majority of data capture is controlled by the private sector now’.

So has there been a data revolution? Well, yes, just as there has been an industrial revolution, the world is now driven by decisions of data as well as by fossil fuels. But just like with the industrial namesake, we won’t know how much noise and pollution is being created without hindsight. Can we control data and make sure that it works for sustainable development as well as commercial gains?


References:

Linked in text and:

APA (American Psychological Assoc.)
Jerven, M. (2013). Poor Numbers : How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do About It. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press

ZigWay – Small Loans Big Data

Micro-finance is a tool to foster economic development for the world’s poorest regions, and is often an answer to problems where the banking industry is not robust enough.

However MFI often focuses on the easy wins of mid-sized loans to small business owners in order to grow operations – sometimes part of female empowerment initiatives.

People want to borrow small amounts regularly, not for grand schemes or business investment, but to aid so-called ‘income smoothing’ on days that they do not work. For example in Myanmar, cash is king. People will live day-to-day on their earnings. Access to finance for farmers, small shop owners and the ultra-poor is very limited, leading them to seek out informal loan-sharks with the obvious risks attached.

ZigWay is a social enterprise start up in Myanmar that offers ‘nano-loans to lift people out of poverty’. In the gap underneath large bank lending and aid funded micro-finance schemes, it aims to give people an alternative to loan-sharks that often charge upwards of 100% interest for small 24hour loans – that to the spiral of debt.

I caught up with entrepreneur and co-founder of ZigWay, Miranda Phua, and she told me how data collection is at the heart of many of these schemes and how it works to bring down the cost of lending.

A struggle for any financial institution is to assess the credit worthiness of their clients. However in informal economies, people do not have bank accounts, credit cards or other means to demonstrate their ability to pay back the loans. There is simply “not enough data on non-repayments”, she says.

There are several precedents around the globe that have served as a model for ZigWay in Myanmar, using innovative solutions to this problem.

Tala, for example, lets people download an app that allows the company to glean certain data from their phone – such as number of contacts and geographical information – that have been deemed to be a more accurate determinate of trustworthiness.

Branch, working in East Africa, also uses the glut of information that is gathered by smartphones to make its lending decisions including: handset details, SMS logs, social network data, GPS data and call logs.

In Myanmar roughly one in ten people have bank accounts, but there are now more mobile phones than people – close to 90% of them are smartphones. It’s what has been termed technology ‘leapfrogging’, and has led to innovations that would not have been possible in other developing markets.

The thinking is that if you can show that you exhibit specific behaviours, such as regularly going to work or having a real Facebook account, the company is more likely to approve a loan. The risk to ZigWay and its equivalents around the world is much reduced – and the benefits for the users are quicker decisions.

To the Western sensibility, allowing access to your phone’s data so explicitly may be a huge red flag for privacy issues. However the leapfrogging process has also jumped the learning curve of how to treat access to personal data in Myanmar. Many people are eager to share all and sundry publicly on their social media accounts – there are instances of those being proud to receive their first ever credit card posting a picture of the thing on Facebook. On a more basic level, the less tech-literate will have their emails set up by the guy on a roadside stall, without ever knowing the password.

This means that getting information on what people ‘like’ or how they behave is – for friends to advertisers to loan companies – considerably easier than in other places. With all the caveats that then brings.

After a successful launch as a start-up, Miranda tells me that they are now looking to bridge the gap to between the day-to-day nano-loans business and the micro-finance industry. “We are automating the full loan process like the others,” she says, “but also working with micro-finance institutions to help them reach more customers – that is to say, we are the intermediary platform, rather than just a lender”.

Change is coming at a fast pace, especially in fintech (financial tech) and telecoms in Myanmar – and enterprises such as this can use that to drive forward development for the poorest sectors of society that are at risk of being left behind.

Digital Divide: Examining Infrastructure

Last week, the Aid & International Development Forum issued a release on global infrastructure, stating that it is a pressing issue, with “$26 trillion required by 2030 to resolve Asia’s infrastructure funding gap. Another $800 billion is necessary to provide 1.5 billion people in the region with access to safe drinking water and sanitation.”

“To keep pace with the rapid growth of economies, population and urbanisation, Southeast Asia needs to invest $16 trillion in transport, energy, telecommunications, water and sanitation. This is more than 60 per cent share of the global investment required.”

The global gaps in telelcommunications, connectivity, and access to technology makes involving beneficiaries in communications that leverage technology a challenge. If access is not widely and uniformly available, segments of the population are left behind in this conversation and are unequally able to participate.

The Forum cites that Myanmar was the “3rd least penetrated mobile market in the world in 2012, yet a low cost SIM card was introduced to make mobile communication more accessible.” Still as of 2016, it states that one third of Burmese hadn’t ever used a mobile phone. Without financial access to this technology, mobile phone use is limited to employed workers and women are left largely “expelled from the mobile revolution.”

Across Southeast Asia, access varies greatly. In Thailand, where I live, more than half of the population is found to be using the internet. Cambodia leads the pack with 133.6 phones per one hundred people. Apart from limited access to this technology, it is cited that in Myanmar, internet penetration is as low as nine percent – but many don’t want to use the internet because of a negative perception of it.

 “Data service users have limited digital skills and, as a result, a limited understanding of what the ‘internet’ is”, states the report. Their usage is often limited to mainly social media and calling apps. There is also a lack of cultural relevance encouraging people to access the internet, as many still do not use it.

As development professionals, as we are called upon to utilize new media and engage our audiences in new ways that appeal to our funders, we must be reminded to listen to our stakeholders, and speak to them where they can be reached.

 

Infrastructure resilience & ICT development in Southeast Asia. Aid and International Development Forum. 16 March 2017. http://www.eco-business.com/press-releases/infrastructure-resilience-ict-development-in-southeast-asia/.

How do Beneficiaries want to be Engaged?

In my last blog post, I focused on urban listening, a way to use social media to monitor and aggregate conversations, gauge audience sentiment, and ultimately measure developmental impact in ways not being captured by traditional monitoring and evaluation methods. In that vein, I became more interested in the topic and found myself searching for:

Examples of development campaigns engaging beneficiaries

I googled, “best social media campaigns international development”

I wanted others’ takes on beneficiary engagement that had been done really well.

What I found were a lot of articles on how the United Nations is utilizing social media around International Day (they’re teaming up with the Smurfs to promote Sustainable Development Goals), and one article that I found particularly interesting (although almost a year old) which was one of the only resources that I could find talking about what beneficiaries wanted out of communications.

The article, posted by the London School of Economics and Political Science, presented several views of activists and development professionals speaking about how social media can engage more deeply with “beneficiaries.”

Aya Chebbi, a Tunisian activist and youth leader spoke during the opening session and implored the NGO members of Bond, “Speak to us, not about us.” This idea continued in the breakout sessions on campaigns and media. The speakers who led these sessions on social media, online activism and the role of global processes repeated this idea that people are not recipients of aid, but they are the agents of their own development if only the development industry would see them as such.

Danny Sriskandarajah of the CIVICUS Alliance, global network of civil society organizations and activists. Right now social media is mostly a fundraising and reporting tool of development NGOs and aid agencies. It’s just another way to “demonstrate results” and make appeals for financial support. But the power of social media remains in its ability to make the marginalized heard in their own voices.

It has been the in-country human rights defenders that NGOs introduced to me that have told the most compelling stories of rights abuse in Bahrain, Myanmar, Pakistan and Egypt. Instead of Human Rights First simply telling me about the civil rights abuses in Bahrain, the organization directed me to Bahraini rights defender Maryam Alkhawaja by elevating her social media feed. This allowed other human rights defenders to track her return to Manama from exile—the world was watching the regime as her flight landed, as she passed through immigration, walked through the airport and into the arms of her family.

Each presenter spoke about ways that the communications can be more participatory. Not just sending messages to stakeholders, but allowing them a chance to speak and deliver the messages themselves.

References

“Speak to us, not about us”: social media and international development. London School of Economics and Political Science. 11 March 2016. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/internationaldevelopment/2016/03/11/speak-to-us-not-about-us-social-media-and-international-development/

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