20
Oct 17

Can Big Data Help Feeding The World?

Aymen, October 20.

Big Data goes beyond just the existence of data. The ability of Big Data techniques to generate insights through synthesizing data from a range of sources may hold the greatest potential and carry the greatest risks of all. On one hand, Spratt and Baker, in their report “Big Data and International Development: Impacts, Scenarios and Policy Options”, explain that Big Data can be manipulated to promote certain political agenda or increase the possibilities for governments and large corporations to discriminate against certain groups or individuals.

big data feeding world

On the other hand, Big Data may have a positive environmental impact as well as a great potential in agriculture and rural development. It can bring new insights and decision points that lead to product/service innovations. This potential touch on, for example, precision farming with very efficient water and fertilizer use, food security coordination through tracking, tracing and transparency and personalized health and nutrition advice. The availability of easily accessible data plays a major role in documenting quality standards of agricultural products, saving time and improving productivity.

Several projects launched by development organizations rely on Big Data to optimize agriculture. For example, FAO launched in more than 10 countries in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and Near East the Virtual Extension and Research Communication Network (VERCON). According to FAO, VERCON is a conceptual model that employs internet-based technologies and Communication for Development methodologies to facilitate networking, knowledge sharing and interaction among agricultural institutions, producer organization and other actors of the agricultural innovation system.

In Egypt for instance, where the first project was launched in early 2000, 100 VERCON access points had been installed in various places, such as extension units, agricultural directorates, research institutions and stations, and Development Support Communication Centers. They were connected to the internet to allow farmers to access to an agricultural economic database as well as news and bulletins that help them in solving their problems. In addition, the platform was useful to share ideas and experience of local farmers and monitor the whole project.

The VERCON project was successful since it relied on existing organizational structures and links. Also, the platform ensured rapid response to user feedback thanks to regular monitoring and access to monitoring results. It used rural and agricultural appraisals at the field level to ensure that the virtual network would be accurately focused on the information and knowledge needs of the larger agricultural community.

The project was successful and the Rural and Agricultural Development Communication Network (RADCON) was set up to engage with a wider range of rural and agricultural development issues and to extend the VERCON network to a wider range of stakeholders, including farmer organizations, youth centres, universities, and NGOs.

However, the challenge that the project must take is the use of ICTs by farmers themselves.  Despite the success of projects that imply Big Data for rural development, developing world-based farmers often face difficulties in meeting the quality and safety standards set by the developed world. The conditions that stimulated the growth of Big Data in the farming industry in the global north such as the widespread adoption of mechanized tractors; genetically modified seeds, computers, and tablets for farming activities are less prevalent in developing countries. While large growers can afford specialized machinery, small farmers do not have this opportunity. As a result, they can neither access the data nor interpret it.

Big Data for rural development can help analyzing large amounts of information related to rainfall data or the pest vector could give valuable insights into important issues such as climate change, weather patterns and disease and pest infestation patterns. However, this valuable information largely benefits the Big Data industry in the Global North. It can have a positive impact on big farmers in the global south, but rural communities might be excluded as they still have little or no access to ICTs.

Nowadays, as evoked by Spratt and Baker, those who are in favour of Big Data adopt an evangelical tone to argue for its benefits; while those who are against it tend to stress its dystopian nature. It is important to remember that Big Data is a very recent phenomenon; according to sciencedaily.com, a full 90 percent of all the data in the world has been generated since 2011. In practice, we don’t have the necessary distance to evaluate its real impact.

When it comes to agriculture, farmers all over the world must produce more to feed world’s rapidly expanding population in the coming decades. Will big data help feeding nine billion people by 2050? Time will tell…

 


18
Oct 17

Is BIG DATA against of for low-income countries?

Goda, October 18.

The development of new ICTs has brought many changes into our day to day life. These technologies are often seen as being undoubtedly good with the recognised capacity to make the world better. Big data is one of the key elements of it. According to Spratt & Baker big data is the belief which offers new and higher knowledge ‘with the aura of truth, objectivity, and accuracy” (Spratt & Baker, 2015).

However, my last post will be focused on Unwin’s argument that even if the purpose and introduction of such technology has a potential to do good, quite often this potential has negative outcomes, especially for poor and marginalized communities. Moreover, although big data is seen as offering new solutions for development issues (Spratt & Baker, 2015), it is mainly focused on “what is”, rather than on “what should be” (Unwin, 2017).

Big data benefits and risks have been discussed in all our previous posts from many different perspectives and illustrated by using different examples. As mentioned earlier, it can be used for various decision-making models. It can create added value or be used for manipulative purposes. So, as data becomes all-pervasive in our lives, it is getting more difficult indeed to achieve a right balance between possibilities and dangers of it.

bid data lowincome countries

According to Unwin, big data is designed “with particular interests in mind, and unless poor people are prioritized in such design they will not be the net beneficiaries“ (Unwin, 2017). In other words, big data primarily maintains the interests of governments or shareholders and it is much less interested in the people, especially from low-income populations. Despite such issues, in the previous posts was clearly stated that governments still play inevitably important role in creating the legislative and policy framework.

This concluding post highlights the most important aspect of big data which should be taken into account. Technologies need to focus on empowerment of people, especially of people from less developed countries rather than controlling them.

Therefore, there is no doubt that big data has been used for reasonable purposes. However, it is difficult to decide if all of them are positive. The use of social media to provoke a certain political change can be seen as being good and bad at the same time. Big data can be an opportunity in various contexts as well as a problem that needs to be solved. Everything depends on the context, particular situation and particular human intervention (Unwin, 2017).

Moreover, in terms of the less developed countries, as the world becomes even more digitally connected, there is a real need for the sharing the knowledge and technical capacity by richer countries and international organizations in order to improve global digital security. While this can cause privacy issues, it needs to be discussed openly and transparently within countries especially if it is related to an equal decision-making towards the reduction of inequality.

Additionally, even if Unwin declares that much more attention needs to be paid to the balance of interests between the rich and the poor than to the ways through which data are used I agree with Read, Taithe and Mac Ginty that data to become explicit, requires a careful analysis in terms of how it is being gathered and used. Especially when the technology itself becomes cheaper and social networking platforms such as Facebook became mainstream forms of communication (Read, R., Taithe, B., Mac Ginty, R, 2016).

However, it is not just the access to technology that matters. The data revolution risks strengthening specialists in headquarters. Thus, not only access to connectivity needs to be provided, but also governments should be innovative and open to new ideas. Also, there should be integrated an appropriate content which should empower, integrate less developed countries and help to use big data for their own interests (Unwin, 2017).

Nevertheless, despite all the risks in terms of poor communities, there are many potential benefits of big data analysis also. Among other things, such information can offer more employment opportunities, transform health care delivery, and do even much more than that (slate.com, 2016).

Therefore, the capacity to meaningfully analyse big data still has the same importance as a balance between developed and developing countries (Rettberg, 2016).

 


14
Oct 17

#BigData – Big Threat to Human Rights?

Louise, October 14.

I have recently explored how big data can be an opportunity in the context of human rights. Among other things, I have taken a closer look at the phenomena called citizen-generated data – data in the hands of the people who are fighting to bring about change. But what happens when big data is controlled by governments or large corporations whose purpose is not to promote the respect for human rights but instead to advance their self-interest or power status?

“Those who argue for the benefits of big data often adopt an evangelical tone, while opponents tend to stress the dystopian nature of big data future”

Spratt & Baker (2016:5)

It is no secret that we live in what could be described as a digital age where technology is advancing and becoming more powerful by the day. The possibilities for governments and other actors, such as large companies, to compile big data, including personal data, is growing larger by the day. It has been stressed that these new technologies are important for issues such as national security. But at the same time, the very same technologies increase the possibilities for governments and large corporations to discriminate against certain groups or individuals (Spratt & Baker, 2016:14).

Even in long-term, stable democracies such as Sweden, these advanced technologies can potentially be used to infringe on rights such as the right to privacy, the right to not be discriminated against, and the right to effective remedy. There are numerous examples of how both companies and governments use various technologies relating to big data to interfere with people’s private lives. This has been demonstrated not least in relation to the increased efforts to combat terrorism.

In Sweden, which is generally considered a country where human rights are widely respected, there are several notable examples of when companies or state authorities have collected big data in ways that violate or may violate people’s right to privacy.

For example, in 2014, the website Lexbase was launched. The website provides access to people’s criminal records so that other people in a user-friendly way can find out if their neighbour, colleague or new date are in the system. The service has been deemed legal as it provides official records, but it has been widely criticised for interfering with people’s personal data. What was however not legal was when the Swedish police compiled personal data of close to five thousand Swedish Roma citizens with no criminal record. In April 2017, the Swedish state was subsequently found guilty of ethnic registration.

“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 12

As stated by Spratt & Baker (2016:14), not all governments use these new technologies that allow for the collection of big data in a negative way, but the potential for them to do so is expanding. For example, authoritarian regimes now have the possibility to monitor opposition members, human rights defenders, independent journalists and other critical voices. Seeing this in relation to other forms of state repression, the challenges for those working to promote and protect human rights could be immense.

Let us take Russia as an example. Since 2015, internet companies are required by law to store personal information – big data – about Russian citizens on servers in Russia. This enables the authoritarian government to mass-surveil its population while at the same time strictly interfering with the citizens’ internet freedoms. This form of control over big data has a severe impact also on other human rights and freedoms such as the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.”

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19

A related issue that should thus not be forgotten is the issue of self-censorship as means to adapt to the state-controlled data collection systems. This means that for example opposition members, the independent media, and human rights defenders are forced to try to adjust their behaviour and communication patterns to avoid state repression. This is a phenomenon that not seldom suffocates the political discourse as it crowds out all critical voices.  

Big data human rights

Copyright © Shutterstock; All Rights Reserved

In the title of this post, I asked myself if big data is a threat to human rights. Having thought about this for quite a while now I would say both yes and no. Big data is not the perpetrator, but it is the weapon. In my next post, I will return to that though when I discuss what more that can be done to ensure that big data is handled correctly.

 


12
Oct 17

(Big) Data for women’s empowerment? – How does it work?

Eraptis, October 12

In my last post, I asked the question about how data could be used in order to measure the impact of the #HeForShe movement on women’s empowerment and argued that theory could guide us in the interpretation of such data. But through logical deduction data must first be generated before it can be analyzed, how does it work when data is generated in practice?

In accordance with Morten Jerven, a basic point of departure when we want to know something about a population is to first establish what the population is. Only after we have established this can we know something about other properties affecting that population. From a development perspective factors such as economic growth, agricultural production, education and health measurements are all predicated upon population data to be meaningful. Many times, however, the definite (real) population number is not actually known but estimated through a population counting process commonly referred to as a census. Jerven illustrates the possible implications of census-taking in a development context through a case study from Nigeria, saying that:

“Today, we can only guess at the size of the total Nigerian population. In particular, very little is known about the population growth rate. The history of census-taking in Nigeria is an instructive example of the measurement problems that can arise in sub-Saharan Africa. It is also a powerful lens through which the legitimacy of the Nigerian colonial and postcolonial state can be observed” – Morten Jerven

Without us getting into the particulars of the Nigerian census-taking case, Jerven points out an interesting aspect of this quote which he elaborates further elsewhere in his book: the involvement of the state in the production of data and official statistics. Thus, argues Jerven, if a particular state is interested in achieving development, we should expect that it also has an interest in measuring (that particular) development. If that’s the case, then the availability of state-generated data should reflect its statistical priorities, which is likely to mirror its political priorities. We, therefore, once again, arrive at the question asked in my first blog post – is all data created equal?

[youtube]href=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?=2&v=YABFcA8yHZ0″[/youtube]

Directing that question to Data2x seems to yield the simple answer “No”, at least not yet. Data2x is a joint initiative of the UN Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the William & Flora Hewlett foundation dedicated to “improving the quality, availability, and use of gender data in order to make a practical difference in the lives of women and girls worldwide”. According to this report produced by Data2x, approximately eighty percent of countries produce sex-disaggregated data on education and training, labour force participation, and mortality. But only one third do the same on informal employment, unpaid work, and violence against women. Mapping the gender data gap across five development and women’s empowerment domains by using 28 indicators identified several types of gaps for each indicator as shown in this table:

big data womens empowerment

Source: Data2x

To close these gaps Data2x argues that existing data sources should be mined for sex-disaggregated data, and new data collection should be designed as a tool for social change that takes into account gender disaggregation already in the planning stages. But useful as they are, conventional data forms generated by household surveys, institutional records, and national economic accounts are not very well suited to capture a detailed account of the lives, experiences, and expressions of women and girls.

Can big data help close this gap? In this new report, Data2x shows it might by profiling a set of innovative approaches of harnessing big data to close the gender data gap even further. For example, have you ever wondered how data generated by 500 million daily tweets across 25,000 development keywords from 50 million Twitter users could be disaggregated by sex and location for analysis? I admit it, before reading the report; I cannot recall being struck by that thought. But, apparently, open data generated from social media platforms may not be sex-disaggregated from the outset. To solve this, the UN Global Pulse and the University of Leiden jointly collaborated together with Data2x to develop and test an algorithm inferring the sex of Twitter users. The tool takes into account a number of classifiers such as name and profile picture to determine the sex of the user producing a tweet and was developed so it could be applied on a global scale across a variety of languages. Comparing the gender classification results generated by the tool to that of a crowdsourced panel for which the correct results were assumed assessed the accuracy of the algorithm. In 74 % of the cases, the algorithm indicated the correct sex, a number that UN Global Pulse deems could be improved through further system development. The results of the project show great potential in generating new insights on development concerns disaggregated by both sex and location by using user-generated data from social media channels, as shown in this screenshot of the online dashboard (go and explore it for yourself!):

big data womens empowerment

Source: UN Global Pulse

Before ending this post I’d like to highlight three other relevant posts from our blog that takes up the relevant questions of bias in data generated from social media, the issue of privacy, as well as the geo-mapping and visualization of big data. Read, reflect, and tell us what you think in the comments field below!

 


08
Oct 17

BIG DATA – BIG Privacy ISSUE

Goda, October 8.

From the previous posts, a big data has been characterised as a fuel that drives the next industrial revolution into every aspect of economic and social life. Moreover, it was highlighted that handling of data is a central and the main component in the context of creating trust online (Spratt & Baker, 2016).

While in developing countries social, economic and financial activities moved into a virtual space, huge amounts of information, including personal data also, have been transmitted, stored and collected globally.

Thus, one of the main issues moving activities online is that present regulatory environment on the protection of data is far from ideal. Many social and cultural norms around the world include a respect for privacy – some protect privacy as a fundamental right while others include the individual privacy in constitutional doctrines or similar documents. Nevertheless, there are certain countries that are still in process of adopting this rule (UNCTAD, 2016).

Today personal data are the fuel which drives more commercial activities online. However, the relevance of data protection and the need for controlling privacy is inevitable and increasingly important not only in global economy and international trade but in social media also (UNCTAD, 2016). From publicly available data in social media platforms, it is so easy to find everyone’s interests, political or religious views, shopping habits and etc. I believe that most people would feel really uncomfortable knowing that someone knows that much about them.

So, everything can be tracked and controlled by the information generated by online activities and it has become a concern to global data protection, privacy, security and trust.

How is Facebook using Big Data?

Facebook, as the world’s most popular social media network, is sometimes called a massive data wonderland. It has been estimated that there will be more than 169 million Facebook users only in the United States by 2018. “Facebook is the fifth most valuable public company in the world, with a market value of approximately $321 billion” (Monnappa, 2017).

Every day and every second numerous amount of photos and comments are uploaded, posted, liked and shared on Facebook. At first, this information doesn’t seem very meaningful but considering the fact that this giant social networking platform knows who peoples’ friends are, what they look like, where they are, what they are doing, some researchers say Facebook has enough of data to know people better than their therapists. Moreover, as it was mentioned before, for the same reason it has been widely used for many political activities also.

”Apart from Google, Facebook is probably the only company that possesses this high level of detailed customer information” (Monnappa, 2017). Facebook has always guaranteed its users that all the details are being shared only with their permission. Nevertheless, there have always been serious privacy concerns among these users. For example, many of them complain that Facebook’s privacy settings are not clearly explained or they are too complex. Also, it is easy for people to share things unintentionally.

privacy issue

Furthermore, there have been several cases in the United States and the UK, such as a Schrems v Facebook, initiated by consumers and civil liberties organizations to challenge the extent of the surveillance. One important results of the case were the renegotiation of the Safe harbour agreement (now called as the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield) which includes a commitment to stronger enforcement and monitoring of privacy and data protection (UNCTAD, 2016).

Moreover, a couple of years ago Belgium privacy commission took Facebook to the court over alleged privacy breaches and users tracking online. According to the report on which the commission was acting, Facebook was tracking users on a long-term basis who visit any page (Gibbs, 2017). The outcome of the case – 28 EU Member States prepared a draft of European law in relation to privacy that would improve the same national regulators’ powers over the companies like Facebook (Schechner and Drozdiak, 2015).

It’s no secret that data privacy is a huge concern for companies that deal with big data. With the help of the new technologies, someone knows more about people than they know about themselves which is frightening. One of the consequences – the majority of people have become slaves to data and have been terrified of social media.

Therefore, not only the countries, societies or companies but people themselves also need to take a great responsibility for their actions. Computers are amazing tools but many people have forgotten that they should use them just like tools. We don’t need to forget the best computer ever created is our brain.