There is a tremendous amount of excitement about what data might entail for sustainable development. This is evidenced by the call for a ‘global data revolution’, and an increasing emphasis on investing in the socialization of data – making use of the new technologies – in response to some of the development sector’s most testing challenges.
See this very illustrative video on how the UN believes data can make the change:
This excitement is not new and is part of the utopian discourse that has been set around the possibilities that ITCs and Social Media offer to guide and improve the development industry. Supporters of these discourses argue how beneficial for democracy, culture, creative expression and even sustainable development the social media can be (Mandiberg, 2012)
As Lievrouw has put it, in the technological era we are living, the creation and manipulation of data corresponds to what he calls “remediation” where “….users borrow, adapt or remix existing materials, expressions and interactions to create a continually expanding universe of innovative new works and ideas”(2011, p.4) Who can resist to this extremely positive and inspiring concept?
This positivity boom stands on three most common attributed functions to data in social media as a tool for development:
Data for decision making
UN´s most recent efforts to measure a ¨sustainable future¨ includes the creation of an Independent Expert Advisory Group on the Data Revolution for Sustainable Developmentin order to better inform the UN agenda beyond 2015. Another UN initiative seeking good governance and policy makers to be better informed is the so called Engineering Data Revolution PARIS21. Policy Makers claim that the access to better data and its socialization have a great impact over the strategies, policies and global plans for sustainable development. Thus, the two examples from above are to be considered real opportunities to improve sustainable development. However, they come accompanied with doubts and skepticism of those who do not perceive any impact on the global policy frameworks since the data reproduced in the social media does not challenge the traditional development discourses. Scholar Tobias Denksus evidenced the little inputs that social media provided during the 2012 MDG Summit (2013,p.418). Despite of the expectations, social media data generated during the event did not succeed in changing the international development policy agenda.
Data upgrading Development Programs
Discourses on how the increase on the quality and quantity of data managed by development actors might support accuracy in development interventions are supported by controversial statements such us “targeting the most needed, vulnerable populations” or“making the invisible to be visible” easily found in web sites advocating for data creation and/or socialization. However, we should be aware of the buzz around “evidence based interventions” to be the new panacea for development actions. One example is to be found in Tobias Denksus and Andrea S. Papan article on international blogging evolution. The authors argue that current blogging practices and contents do not necessarily change the most positivistic discourses present in the development industry which most commonly promoted by the marketing strategies of development organizations (2013, p.465). Data presented through the social media might not improve development actors’ interventions if i)the contents of the blogs, tweets, posts at facebook and others do not provoke a real exchange of knowledge and boost learning hubs and ii) if the data provided has been partially gathered and/or presented. Social media should also talk about the non-successful programs, politically uneasy experiences and other awkward information if accuracy in development interventions is to be gained.
Data democratizing development industry.
Similarly, the critics surrounding the democratic function of data warn how the increased interest in data and data collection is done without necessarily increase the capacities of data providers or strengthen the capacities of data subjects.Do social media actually promotes citizen -from both the Global North and the Global South- participation? This is the question authors like Jan. N. Pieterse (2005) have critically answered calling the general ICT for Development (ICT4D) A “Trojan horse that locks developing countries into everlasting dependency” (p.23) For Pieterse and others internet is a middle class tool that requires a certain type of technological literacy that is not in the hands of the majority of those living in the Global South. Thus, citizen participation through sharing data at the social media is already excluding those of whom the data talks about. More than democratizing, social media might repeat a very well known mistake in development: helping people without the people. We should insist in questioning about whose data is collected and who can have access to it. As for the democratization of the citizens in the global north, there are some worth-noting initiatives such as Making all Voices Count. However, the repercussion and impact of those isolated efforts are not yet clear. Not to mention about the level of real involvement and participation citizens do have through the type of engagement social medial makes possible (Morozov ,2013)
Beware of the excess of excitement!
If something we can conclude here is that by any means it has been proven yet the benefit data created by/through/at the social media can offer to the sustainable development. Furthermore, the Global Data Revolution and the Social Media have not managed to overcome very common mistakes and tensions happening in the development industry. Among them the lack of prominence and voice from the people living in the Global South both in development policies and practices is one of the most blatant examples. If social media wants to really change things in development it needs to start by challenging trite discourses and inviting everyone concerned to participate.
Aday, S., Farrell, H., Lynch, M. et al. 2010: Blogs and Bullets: New Media in Contentious Politics, Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace
Denskus, T., Papan, A. 2013: Reflexive engagements: the international development blogging evolution and its challenges, Development in Practice 23: 435-447.
Denskus, T., Esser, D. 2013: Social Media and Global Development Rituals: a content analysis of blogs and tweets on the 2010 MDG Summit, Third World Quarterly 34: 409-424
Lievrouw, Leah (2011) Alternative and Activist New Media Oxford: Polity Press.
Pieterse, J.N (2005) Digital Capitalism and Development: the Unbearable Lightness. In Lovink, G. &Zehle, S. Incommunicado Reader. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures
Mandiberg, M. 2012: The Social Media Reader, New York, NY: NYU Press.
Morozov, E. 2013: To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, New York, NY: Public Affairs