Big Data: Silver Bullet, 21st Century oil, or just a plain old thermometer? Part II

Part II

So what does a post-truth world mean when it comes to Big Data for Development? Does it mean that facts no longer matter? Or that indicators such as Gross National Product, or economic growth rates, the foundations of tracking development progress, may no longer be relevant?

In a Global Citizen blog, the writer acknowledges that “This dissonance between fact and feeling is nothing new in global development circles. For those of us brought up on a steady diet of ‘flies in their eyes’ fundraising ads, benefit concerts and telethons, the idea that things are getting worse has strong emotional resonance…If we continue to sell a story of dire need, the public will conclude that development doesn’t work.”

The blog continues to state that the real challenge for development now is to embrace collective facts, (not to ignore them), but then link them back to the feelings that are increasingly the drivers of political change.

But all the data in the world can’t make up for the unstoppable erosion of trust in Post-Truth government and experts. In any case we’re not convinced by information, we’re convinced by emotions as a number of Stanford experiments showed in the 1970s. This is even more the case when there is an information overload.

One blogger laments that the utopian principles of creating a ubiquitous source of information with the internet, failed to recognize a fundamental problem “The internet, in the end, was not designed to give people the information they need. It gives people the information they want.” He explains that when there’s an oversupply of something, people value it less. “What if the same is true for information? What if increasing the supply of information to the point where it’s limitless has made us value any particular piece of information less?” Infinite information doesn’t enlighten; rather it confuses, and causes citizens to distrust it, reject those presenting it, and disengage with facts to find solace with like-minded opinions.

Nowhere perhaps is this more abundantly clear than with the issue of climate change. There has never been more data, nor such concerted efforts to make vast data sets available to people in user friendly, and participatory ways.

The Obama Administration launched a huge initiative to make climate data available, with more than 100 curated, high-quality data sets, Web services, and tools that can be used by anyone to help prepare for the effects of climate change. At the same time, NASA invited citizens to help find solutions to the coastal flooding challenge. UN Global Pulse launched a Big Data Climate Challenge to crowdsource projects that use big data to address the economic dimensions of climate change. It assembled an incredible map of how the world tweets about climate change.

So what can this example show us? Rather than looking at how big data can impact climate change attitudes, it might be worth instead looking at how the issue of climate change impacts our understanding of big data.

And this comes down to our tongue-in-cheek title for this blog: Al Gore Rhythm. Perhaps the most famous climate change activist cannot change public opinion by fact, when the algorithms that determine our opinions on social media, reject fact for the emotional comfort of shared opinion and prejudice. According to a recent poll of the Pew Research Center, only 40% of Americans believe that global warming is primarily caused by human activities that pump excessive amounts of C02 into the atmosphere.

It’s the not facts and information that is important. “Big data can allow for more efficient responses to emerging crises, distributed access to knowledge, and greater understanding of the effects personal and policy decisions have on the planet’s climate”, Luengo-Oroz stated, adding, “But it’s not the data that will save us. It’s the analysis and usage of the data that can help us make better decisions for climate action.”

I agree up to a point. But analysis and usage needs to be matched by access and acceptance. The current distrust of data and experts plays into the hands of autocrats and demagogues across the world. When Nasa released satellite imagery of deforestation in Cambodia, the evidence of widespread deforestation over time was abundantly clear. But the ruling party flatly rejected the findings, blaming foreign meddlers for inciting Cambodian citizens to criticize the government.

If we’re told that deforestation is happening in Cambodia, if we’re shown the spread of it, it doesn’t give us the tools to take on the government about it. People don’t want more data, they want more answers and the space to hold governments to account. All the data in world won’t necessarily increase or free up and effective public sphere.

By contrast, it seems all to often, to have made it shrink.

The buzz in the develo-sphere about the potential for Big Data and Development is huge. Back to my starting point: Is Big Data a silver bullet for development?

That was the subject of a workshop organised in response to a call from the UN secretary-general’s post-2015 High-Level Panel for “more evidence-based development policy-making and implementation, better availability of quality data and statistics and strengthened accountability of development stakeholders”.

Language that would no doubt make William Easterly’s develo-sceptic toes curl.

But Olav Kjorven, a special advisor to the UNDP introduced a note of caution into the workshop, arguing that Data itself is not a silver bullet, and that the data revolution is ultimately a political issue — not just a technical one. One metaphor used frequently suggests that Big Data is the “oil” of the 21st Century, fuelling and lubricating society, but which needs refining (data scientists and policy experts). This metaphor is a dangerous one. It shifts the potential of Big Data away from citizen power to specialist power.

In the workshop Roberto Bissio of Social Watch, an NGO based in Uruguay, suggested that a better metaphor would be a thermometer. The economic value of a thermometer is negligible but its importance is enormous. It provides an early warning of something being wrong and requires frequent checking.

Most importantly, a thermometer is cheap and available to all to use.

How to take Big Data analytics out of the hands of experts and into the palms of people (and not just in the Global South in a development context) will be the biggest challenge.

Macharia Kamau, permanent representative of Kenya to the UN and co-chair of the UN working group on Sustainable Development Goals, gave the keynote address at this workshop.

“We’re in a great space here,” he said, “but things are urgent. Whatever happens, don’t think that the downtrodden are going to stick around and wait. With technology and the internet, people are no longer patient.”

They are no longer waiting for solutions to be provided to them by experts proclaiming to be acting in their best interest. The erosion of any faith that politicians and corporations have citizens’ interests in mind is clear. It has happened with other national resources, plundered and exploited for the benefit of the few. If Big Data continues to be seen as the “oil” of the 21st century, there is a real danger that it will be jealously protected and hijacked for political reasons, and breed more resentment and frustration, particularly in a post-truth world.

William Davies concludes his piece with a dark warning. “the battle that will need to be waged in the long term is not between an elite-led politics of facts versus a populist politics of feeling. It is between those still committed to public knowledge and public argument and those who profit from the ongoing disintegration of those things.”

In some ways then, Big Data has effectively collapsed the distinction between Global South and the Global North and made development (as something that needs to happen to some countries only), a relic of the Enlightenment paradigm. While that may be refreshing to many who reject very distinction of “developed” and “developing”, it is not surprising that this Big-Data fuelled Post-Enlightenment era appears to many as something dark and to be feared.

One Comment

  1. Samah

    Very engaging post, really enjoyed reading the about how easy it can be for development sector (and beyond!) to be seduced by the hype, and forgetting that data in itself does not solve global issues. Its how good we are at capturing, analysing and understanding the data that is paramount, and as long as we can take a step back and come to terms with the range of issues like ethics, sample error and sample bias, that make big data certainley more of a very useful tool rather than revolutionary.

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