Global Data Revolution & Social Media: Should Development be THAT excited?

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.


Reference List:

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 challengesDevelopment 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 SummitThird 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


  1. Hi, it’s hard to follow your thinking. Are you suggesting that development should not be exciting? As a response to that I would like to ask, what is considered to be “sustainable development” in that case…? Isn’t it enough, if a single individual can be freed from prison with a social media campaign like Amnesty’s mobile phone activism many time does? See:
    I agree that a lot of fuzz is going on around social media, but on the other hand maybe it is better to look at it more like a long-term tool that can strengthen civil society and the public sphere (Shirky 2013). “A slowly developing public sphere,where public opinion relies on both media and conversation, is the core of the
    environmental view of Internet freedom.”

    • Hi Minna!
      Interesting comments! Yes! Maybe I tried to say too much in a short article and squeezed so many ideas in there! It is true that there are many examples on how social media and the innovative use of the data has contributed to development. However, Did Social media reached the expectations? I argue that this is not the case. And it is important to understand that social media is not fulfilling the expected roles or functions (in my article I mention three) and that we cannot continue being naïve about the fact that Social Media is not that powerful in provoking social changes as it is generally accepted. By understanding “what has gone wrong” or “what is not working”, we can make a better use of the Social Media. I think this is what critical papers like the ones from Denksus (2013), Aday (2010), Morozov (2013) and other authors commented through this blog are arguing about.

  2. One very important aspect that you raise in your text is that about political decision-making. Is development data actually presenting a nuanced picture of the conditions “on the ground”? Are the measurements for instance revelant? Tobias Denskus made a very interesting point about the meausurement of official measures of poverty (such as a §1, 25 per), that are based on monetary indicators –they also miss out on the contextual factors such as the food cost succeeding this amount by far in many places, or the fact that this does not take into account the many political failures – or non-decisions on investment – that’s depriving people from access to water or children of schooling. Denskus points to the absence of any dialogue with the actual concerned individuals and groups affected by this and how they define it and what ways forward that they identify. How can we make measurements accurately reflect on what’s really needed, and as you suggest, give voice to those who can tells us.

  3. Very interesting post with many thought provking arguments. I Believe that we have somewhat the same core argument in our posts, that of the Global Data Revolution often being approached, in the West as a Revolution, all the while the effects of this is yet to be seen in the Global South. For all the while social media and other necessities in the Global Data Revolution are present in the Global South it is still true that the development paradigm has yet to change. Still there are global Conferences held in the Global North wiht the purpose of discussing development issues in the Global South. As Denkus and Papan Points out in their article the online interaction in light of these grand meetings are neither seemingly providing alternative approaches or insights to the issues disucussed…nor are they inviting voices from the Global South, the voices that should be the ones in best place to provide data and facts on the needs and best practices for change and development.

  4. Thank you for the very thought inspiring post, Maria. You have a chosen a topic that is, in my opinion, of great importance for the field of development. The excitement about data revolution is looked through the prism of the Global North and that is the reason most of the common mistakes in the field of development to be still happening. It is a major concern that the development should be viewed from the Global South point in order to be effective. In that context, Pieterse (2010) suggest three main steps that can change the field of development in 21st century – to have a global We, to rebalance globalization and to have social innovations.