A few days ago, Simone Sala was in Egypt to head a workshop on ICTs and entrepreneurship in the agricultural sector. Today he is in Bruges, Belgium, to talk about innovation and digital solutions for a more equal world at the Re-inventing Europe Youth Conference. Then he’s off to Guatemala with the ICA programme for meetings with a network of young job seekers in the agrifood sector, to identify the best ICTs for a public programme promoting employment and entrepreneurship.
Before all this, I got to meet Simone in Rome, where he is currently based as an international consultant at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Simone holds a PhD in Agricultural Science, with a focus on ICTs for food security in developing countries vulnerable to climate change. The description of his professional self as a hybrid animal is quite helpful to grasp the four portfolios he covers at FAO, along with his collaboration with the Data-Pop Alliance and other projects.
ICT for Development at the UN
With one foot in academia and the other in international practice, Simone has been walking the field of data for sustainable development in rural settings for over ten years. At FAO, he dedicates much of his time to the partnerships division, particularly in the Communication for Development (ComDev) team.
– Within ComDev, my role is to make sure ICTs are properly considered in outreach strategies. In Haiti for example, FAO supported the government to develop a set of resilience focused agricultural practices, and my team liaised with national consultants and stakeholders in order to identify the most effective ways to spread the information to those who really need it.
Simone also supports Civil Society Organizations like AMARC to develop their capacities for using ICTs. For the Private Sector branch, he sometimes takes part in the screening of companies that reach out to FAO with suggestions for collaboration. Here the task is to help assessing how relevant and/or strategic the collaboration would be for FAO from a technological perspective. One of these companies is Google Maps.
Finally, Simone collaborates with the Information and Technology Division at FAO to identify appropriate delivery mechanisms for the organizational Digital Strategy. This means mapping the information landscape in countries where FAO works in terms of connection and providers, in order to deliver services more efficiently and support ministries of agriculture to develop information channels that are scalable, considering the country-specific context.
– One might ask why a UN agency specialized in food and agriculture is engaged in mapping information infrastructures, but FAO has actually been mandated by the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) to help reduce the rural digital divide, Simone explains.
Partnerships and other challenges
– Public institutions like national ministries and international organizations face great challenges in today’s digital reality. The private sector is far ahead, especially when it comes to the generation of data. The good side of this is that it spurs public-private partnerships, he continues.
For the public sector, collaborating with the private becomes necessary to remain relevant in the digital data environment, while for the private sector sharing data with public institutions or CSOs can be beneficial both for companies’ reputation in terms of CSR and to promote the long-term development of their sector by encouraging public investments.
the big data revolution implies something completely different. It enables us to use data on the go, with no time to analyze or compare it.
Still, the challenge remains to make sense of the immense amount of potentially interesting data collected, often as a ‘side-product’ of other purposes. Simone agrees fully with those who mean that the development of technologies for data collection is out of joint with the capabilities to handle it.
– We are used to handling ex-post data, like in the yearly reports of national statistical centers, but the big data revolution implies something completely different. It gives us the possibility and fuels the need to use data on the go, with no time to analyze or compare it. For this we need specific skills and technologies.
As discussed in the paper Is bigger better? The emergence of big data as a tool for international development policy, the capacity gap is particularly present in the nexus between data and development, as data analysts and development specialists still tend to lack a common language.
Putting people at the center
Indeed, several ‘divides’ remain to bridge in the realm of digital data. Apart from private vs. public and availability vs. capability, there are the well-known disparities between the so-called developed and developing countries, between social groups within countries and between the sectors who benefit from data developments.
– In contexts where public institutions are weak and the private sector is the main driver of investments, it becomes even more challenging to encourage public-private partnerships, as the public has little to offer the private. Here, companies will be even more tempted to use data for their own good only, says Simone.
The paper Big Data and International Development: Impacts, Scenarios and Policy Options discusses the impact of big data especially in developing countries, reflecting on the potential of data both to create new values and break down old ones. It underlines the importance of policy to regulate companies’ ability to capitalize on personal data.
With the goal of addressing such challenges, Simone is engaged in the Data-Pop Alliance (DPA) – one of the first to work on data for development – and the Responsible Data Forum, that develops tools for managing the ethical, security and privacy related challenges in data-driven advocacy. Among other projects, Simone has taken part in developing a white paper on how best to invest in data for development sponsored by the UK Department for International Development, and contributed to a report on digital dividends commissioned by the World Bank.
– It all comes down to placing human development at the center of the data revolution.
Indeed, if this is not the case, then what kind of a revolution is it?