Big Data and Development: Revolution or Evolution?

Part II

The useful historical perspectives cited in my previous post, in some way hark back to Hayek’s 1945 article, The Use of Knowledge in Society in which the battle lines were drawn between data-driven top-down development and participatory bottom-up self-empowerment. Analysing this article Easterly in The Tyranny of Experts states that Hayek “demolished the presumption that experts had sufficient knowledge to consciously design solutions to all social problems. He noted that the kind of knowledge to make investment, production, and consumption decisions was often very localized, context-specific, and personally idiosyncratic.”

This sounds like just the kind of information created by the millions of citizens using digital platforms. Easterly adds, “The knowledge needed to generate prosperity is not contained in a single mind, it is dispersed among many minds. The free society creates the incentives for each individual to utilize his or her own particular bits of knowledge.”

Hayek proposed an alternative approach focusing on “spontaneous order”. As Easterly notes, “Similar concepts abound today. Whether called complexity, complex adaptive systems, self-organizing systems, or emergence, and whether championed by natural scientists or Silicon Valley enthusiasts, all refer to systems that nobody designed, that display order that nobody ordered, and that deliver outcomes that nobody intended.”

Big Data and the 2.0 digital world offers the tantalizing glimpse of “spontaneous order”. In a sense then, Big Data exists at the intersection of the “Invisible Hand” first proposed by Adam Smith, and the “Conscious Design” which has informed the last century’s approach to development planning. Is development something to be planned by experts and delivered by autocrats to its powerless citizens, or is it something that emerges from empowered citizen-searchers finding their own solutions in a dizzying myriad of ways.

As Big Data is increasingly harnessed FOR development, the danger is that the big data analysts will offer up the latest solution in which we will find, “Planners aiming at the impossible, instead of letting searchers work on the possible.” (Easterly, White Man’s Burden, 2007)

This distinction finds an easy correlation between the use of participatory active data (searchers) and data exhaust or passive data analysts (planners). The former is the domain of crowd sourced citizen-generated digital pathways; the latter the domain of experts and technocrats mining citizen activities to plan interventions with big projections of how this can solve development problems.

In Big Data and the digital world, these two options co-exist simultaneously and are mutually dependent.

So within Big Data we see the battleground around development itself. The control of data becomes the new the frontline. And the development paradigm is as resistant to ideological change as it is embracing of technological change. Easterly warns that the development machine or industry “constantly produces the conditions for its own agency.” (Easterly, 2007) In this he expands to address the legend of the big push, the persistent belief that a new approach, new goals, new contexts (in this case the scaled up adoption of Big Data analytics) will be THE solution. It is this legend which creates the “technocratic illusion:” poverty results from a shortage of expertise, rather than a shortage of rights.

Interestingly, Easterly offers up one example of spontaneous order when he looks at the unplanned consequences of the launch of mPesa in Kenya (Easterly, 2013). “Just as cell phones themselves bypassed dysfunctional land lines in Africa, Africans are using their cell phones to bypass inefficient state-regulated traditional banks. The firm MPESA in Kenya originally intended to be a microcredit organization but found that its customers wanted to use the technology they devised for repaying microcredits for something else. MPESA had stumbled by chance into a huge market for financial transfers by cell phone.” MPESA now processes more transfers within Kenya than Western Union does internationally. When he goes on to state, “We are a long way from conscious design and a lot closer to spontaneous solutions,” the seductive potential of the digital world 2.0 and Big Data is clear.

I wonder then what Easterly would make of the following disturbing development with mPesa. A Daily Nation article in Kenya from the 17th February 2017 had the headline, “Big Brother could start tapping your calls, texts from next week”

The report reveals that the Communications Authority of Kenya has ordered all mobile phone companies to allow a third party private company (neither government nor the telecoms operators) to tap into its servers and databases. Ironically, the reason given is to try and stem the use of mPesa, the much-lauded mobile money transfer solution, for tax evasion purposes within the 40m mobile users. A hacker group calling itself AnonPlus promptly defaced the Communications Authority homepage by posting its manifesto promising to “defend freedom of information, freedom of the people and emancipation of the latter from the oppression of media”.

This is the frontline, and it is the frontline over what constitutes development itself.

It exists in the tension between the digital worlds potential and the reality; between its role in promoting freedom or as a form of control; between its utopian neutrality to search, or its politicised evidence-based approach co-opted for more central planning. While many believers hope that Adam Smith’s “Invisible hand” can give the world’s 2.0 “digital hand” a firm handshake (or perhaps a 21st century fist bump), the very real likelihood is that it will be met by another authoritarian development fist.

Typically, just as the West rejects experts (think Brexit and Trump), the Global South is being inundated with new ones. The UN Global Pulse links Big Data directly to the achievement of the newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals (the new big push). As a new legion of experts descend on the Global South to advise and direct governments on how best to harness big data for development, grassroots organisations and individuals will likely ignore the top down solutions (and the accompanying expert consultancy fees and corporate partnerships) to find their own ways of using and producing the data to develop their own solutions.

Big Data is both a tool for, and the locus of, development. Big Data, to some extent, IS development.

As Big Data sheds more light on how society is organised and functions, I would like to end this post with a quote from AC Nielson, the father of market research. “The price of light is less than the cost of darkness”. Perhaps this would be better framed as a question.


    1. Ian

      Thanks for the link Mark. A really interesting approach. The rush for the future possibilities of Big Data for Development often rejects the historical perspective and how the process of analysing and statistically quantifying trends has been around for centuries. “The role of law during times of optimism, disruption, and uncertainty is challenging, but there are lessons to be learned to from the avalanche of numbers that may mitigate the pains of progress presented by big data.” Great insights. Thank you.

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