Big data opportunities (taken with a pinch of salt)

As Julia points out in her recent post, big data presents fantastic opportunities for the Development field – especially when combined with the new frontier of medicine. The vision of big data as ‘our saviour’ is coherent with the warning by Spratt and Baker, according to whom “those who argue for the benefits of big data often adopt an evangelical tone, while opponents tend to stress the dystopian nature of a big data future” (2016, p.5).

Such dichotomy between heaven and hell reflects the huge interests in the sector: new big data ‘markets’, production and delivery of goods and services, better understanding of the complexity of a problem to achieve its solution, marketing opportunities are just a few of the benefits of big data (see table 3.1 by Spratt and Baker, p.19-20).

The necessity of data storage creates profits and employment, the need for real-time connectivity creates better infrastructures and drives price of technology down, also allowing the possibility of creating ‘smart grids’ with huge environmental benefits.

I work for a charity who tackles climate change through – among many other things – helping huge companies to understand the economic and environmental benefits of solutions we already have today. For example, big data can help understanding energy consumption and production, and it is crucial for delivering energy efficiency – especially at home, where by 2022 a typical one could contain more than 500 connected devices. And more generally, big data play a huge role in today’s fight against climate change – a huge, complex issue that needs fairly accurate predictions.


Image courtesy of The Climate Group. Copyright CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

However, it is important to underline that big data problems showed in my previous post “are aggravated in developing countries by long-standing development challenges like lacking technological infrastructure and economic and human resource scarcity,” say Martin Hilbert (2013, p.1). “This has the potential to result in a new kind of digital divide: a divide in data-based knowledge to inform intelligent decision-making.” Again, Spratt and Baker reinforce this concept warning us that “organisations outsource data analysis work to countries where labour costs are low but skills are high”, with the concrete risk of brain-drain in developing countries (2016, p.11).

Examples of positive aspects of big data are counterbalanced by apocalyptic visions of a world where privacy is a myth of the past and everything is not only connected, but also controlled. My next post will try to give a clearer vision of the issue, far from the hype driven by the many interests in the field.


Spratt, S. & Baker, J. (2016). Big Data and International Development: Impacts, Scenarios and Policy Options. Brighton: IDS

Hilbert, M. (2013). Big Data for Development: From Information – to Knowledge Societies. SSRN Electronic Journal.

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