23
Oct 17

Event: WEF India Summit 2017. Tracing the ICT4D discourse

Eraptis, October 23.

I’d like to use my concluding blog post to zoom out a bit and take a bird’s eye view of our vibrant discussions about the interconnectedness of social media, data, and development and place it into a wider discussion about development discourse. The question I’d like to ask is really, how much space does the ICT4D discourse occupy in mainstream development narratives? To do so I have chosen to focus on a single session coupled with a number of tweets from the recent World Economic Forum India Summit 2017 taking place in New Delhi on 4-6 October 2017.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) is an independent not-for-profit foundation based in Geneva, Switzerland. It was established in 1971 with the mission to “improv(e) the state of the world” through public-private cooperation, and as such engages the “foremost political, business and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas”. Since 1985, WEF annually organizes the “Indian Economic Summit” event specifically aimed at shaping the political, economic and industrial agendas of India in partnership with multiple stakeholders as outlined above. The topic of this year’s event was perhaps specifically indicative of this aim: Creating Indian Narratives on Global Challenges.

Apart from broadcasting and recording the live sessions of these events WEF also shares additional content through blogs and reports, which are distributed through their website, and shared and communicated on various social media channels such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. Participation in the events is however restricted to specific stakeholders.

The session I chose to cover directly addressed the overall topic of the event, “Creating Indian Narratives”, and took the form of a panel discussion comprising of the following participants representing government, private, and non-governmental stakeholders.

ict4d discourse

From top left: Ajay S. Banga, President and CEO of Mastercard; Dipali Goenka, CEO of Welspun India Ltd; Piyush Goyal, Minister of Railways and Coal; Malvika Iyer, Member of the UN Inter-Agency Network on Youth Development’s Working Group on Youth and Gender Equality; Karan Johar, Head of Dharma Productions; Sunil Bharti Mittal, Chairman of Bharti Enterprises

[youtube]“https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YbMkQr6XP5A”[/youtube]

My first impression of the session was that several of the participants did indeed mention various ICT solutions as being part of a new Indian narrative numerous times. This was not wholly unexpected judging both by the composition of the panel and the mission of the WEF. In fact, Murphy & Carmody even go as far as characterizing organizations like the WEF and international financial institutions as forms of social movements of their own (albeit top-down), with the aim of advancing corporate globalization and the neoliberal agenda. In this sense, it seems that the ICT4D discourse occupies a significant amount of space in the realm of mainstream development discourse, at least in the more traditional branches focusing on economic growth and structural transformation as drivers of development. But in what way does ICT play a role in this kind of development? In order to unpack some of the statements made by the panellists, I found the following conceptualization provided by Murphy & Carmody to be very useful. By distinguishing the forms of ICT integration into “thin” and “thick” categories, the importance and strength of ICT integration can be meaningfully discussed. Thin, or imminent, forms of ICT integration often lead to cumulative gains in productivity and efficiency at the level of the individual or firm. Whereas thick, or imminent, ICT integration is more transformative in its character, often leading to new forms of industrial organization and practices at the industry and market level. Or what Schumpeter would call “creative destruction”. So, with this in mind, what kind of ICT integration did the panellists advocate for?

One of the most interesting exchanges from this perspective occurred in the first round of addresses where Ajay S. Banga, CEO and President of Mastercard, began speaking about India’s “productivity challenge” as a barrier to growth, resulting in a large part due to a large portion of the Indian labor force being employed by the informal sector. For him, transforming the economy to provide formal job opportunities must be part of the new Indian narrative. However, one of the challenges facing this transition is a relatively low skilled labour force, which furthermore is not incentivized to gain new skills in an informal environment, coupled with a low incentive for firms to invest in such an environment. Dipali Goenka continued Ajay’s line of reasoning from the perspective of her own industry (textiles) experience arguing on the one hand that India is still an agricultural economy, with these sectors employing maximum workforces (mainly women). And that digitization could be a way of educating women to increase their skills and productivity in that sector. Dipali also argued for smartphone usage for cotton farmers to increase their agricultural productivity through better access to information on weather and crop conditions.

Furthermore, Minister Goyal in the second round of addresses talked about the role of entrepreneurship and provided an example of ICT solutions as an enabling force empowering individuals along the railroad nodes to franchise ticket sales through mobile devices by small-scale entrepreneurs. Ajay then added that his own corporation (Mastercard) has played a significant role in providing financial services to a large number of people in the world through electronic and mobile payment solutions and digitization, which he argued has increased efficiency and safety in the overall payments systems. This kind of transformation in the way of doing things, Ajay argued, is part of changing the Indian narrative. Moreover, a large part of this kind of business and system development within Mastercard is developed in India, by Indian developers, and is then exported to the rest of world.

Applying Murphy & Carmody’s conceptual framework of imminent and immanent ICT integration to these arguments generates some interesting insights. Firstly, it could be argued that Ajay’s opening statement regarding the “productivity challenge” to some extent is a call for an imminent and deep transformation of both structure and organization of the productive formal sectors in order to absorb and employ labour from the unproductive informal sectors. Whereas Dipali’s following argument can be viewed more as an imminent form of ICT integration where efficiency and productivity gains could be achieved both in the textile industry by empowering and educating female workers through ICT solutions, as well as in the downstream (garment) and upstream (cotton farmers) sectors of the value chain. Likewise, Minister Goyal’s suggestion of franchising train ticket sales through a mobile application to small-scale local entrepreneurs instead of opening local sales offices is also an example of imminent ICT integration where increased efficiency may occur on the level of the individual or the firm. But what about Ajay’s last argument regarding Indian driven innovation within electronic and mobile payments system development? Surely this must be an example of thick, immanent, ICT integration fundamentally transforming industry practices? Yes, but not necessarily in India, as this depends on a multitude of things. On the one hand, and as Ajay expressed himself, new innovations are being developed “for the world”. Thus, the benefits from both uptake and development of these new technologies may occur elsewhere as a form of economic extraversion, and profits generated from these new ICT solutions may be accumulated where the company’s head office is situated (Murphy & Carmody). Whether these skills and capabilities developed eventually spills-over to local entrepreneurs and spur innovation at the national level, countering some of the dependency from multinational corporations, is not certain.

To answer my initial question “how much space does the ICT4D discourse occupy in mainstream development narratives?” – it seems, from this example, quite significantly both directly and indirectly. What is more interesting however is to try and unpack what kind of development, and how deep. Murphy & Carmody’s framework has been very helpful in thinking about ICT4D discourse from this critical perspective. What are your thoughts? And what are other potential threats and opportunities to digitization and ICT4D?

 


10
Oct 17

Big Data Visualization: A Big Asset for decision making

Aymen, October 10.

As defined in a previous article by Feinleib, Big Data is the ability to capture, store, and analyze vast amounts of human and machine data, and then make predictions from it. On the other hand, Beyer and Laney, in their definition of Big Data, stress that it useful for an enhanced insight and decision-making.

Indeed, stocking large amounts of information is not useful by itself, but the main goal, in this case, is the way to use and combine this stock of data to facilitate decision making. For example, financial markets increasingly rely on Big Data to trace stock prices and refine predictions for computer-based trading. From a development perspective, Big Data can be useful to follow the development of projects and better understand the needs and expectations of beneficiaries.

Still, when thinking of Big Data, large SQL or Excel tables or algorithms for instance usually come to our minds. Although these two tools require a certain expertise to have the ability to “read between the lines,” they remain incomprehensible for the ordinary person. In his book “The Promise and Peril of Big Data,” David Bollier explains that Big Data usually rely on powerful algorithms that can detect patterns, trends, and correlations over various time horizons in the data, but also on advanced visualization techniques as “sense-making tools”.

In this sense, it is equally important to present eye-catching visualizations of the results extracted from Big Data. They will firstly contribute to making a large amount of information understandable and accessible, in addition to the dissemination of the findings through academic publications, reports, presentations, and social media. In his book “Data Visualization with JavaScript”, Stephen A. Thomas defines Data Visualization as the way to visualize large amounts of data in a format that is easily understood by viewers. The simpler and more straightforward presentation, the more likely the viewer will understand the message.

Indeed, Data Visualization is an important feature of Big Data analytics, as it can provide new perspectives on findings that would otherwise be difficult to grasp. For example, “word clouds”, which are a set of words that have appeared in a certain body of text – such as blogs, news articles or speeches, for example – are a simple and common example of the use of visualization, or “information design,” to unearth trends and convey information contained in a dataset, but there exist many alternatives to word clouds, such as geographic representation.

For instance, the infographic here below, based on large amounts of information, explains how mobile technology is used worldwide as a tool to improve health care, education, public safety, entrepreneurship, or the environment. These worldwide initiatives are part of the 9th Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), which aims to “Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation.”

big data visualization

In this example, Big Data is doubly useful as it is the base of projects launched in the various countries represented on the map. Concretely, it contributes to reducing maternal deaths from placenta praevia in Moroccan rural areas. Furthermore, the simple visualization of this large volume of information facilitates its analysis and can consequently help decision makers to track the progress of projects and can be used as benchmark data to reproduce the same successful initiatives in other countries.

Geographic representation of Big Data is used in the various field, especially in monitoring migration movements. In this sense, almost 200 academic studies involving big data and migration had been published between 2007 and 2016. The Syrian refugees’ crisis is a significant example of the use of Big Data to visualize migration flows. The infographic here below from the New York Time explains in a clear way how nearly half of Syria’s entire population was displaced due to the civil war.

big data visualization

In a wider context, the geographic representation of migration flows between 2000 and 2016 based on Big Data gathered by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) summarizes in a clear and synthetic way the countries of origins and of residence/asylum of migrants.

These are two examples of how geographic visualization of Big Data can – through the historical track record – predict more accurately how many more refugees could be expected over coming years into which points of entry. As a result, military, police, and humanitarian efforts be more coordinated and pre-emptive based on this information.

It is important to take into consideration that stocking large amounts of information is not useful by itself, but its main goal is to use and combine this stock of data to facilitate decision making and create added value. The analysis of Big Data is a big asset as it might facilitate tracking the progress of projects, understand migration trends or allow a better-coordinated mapping of conflict or adversity and delivery of aid to people in dire circumstances.

However, we must remember that Big Data also enable strategies of surveillance, control, and population management. Big Data involves the quantification, classification, and construction of individuals and populations, and categories that are never impartial or objective but embedded in socio-political contexts. It is the researcher’s ethical role to keep these crucial points in mind when deciding what data to use, how to get it, treat it, store it, and share it. In the UK for instance, the manipulation of data and statistics has played a major role in bolstering anti-immigration narratives and xenophobic political agendas. This is to say that raw Big Data or visualized one are not themselves harmful, but the way they are used is indeed dangerous.


04
Oct 17

Citizen-Generated #Data. A Game-Changer for Human Rights?

Louise, October 4.

I will, as promised, dedicate this post to some positive examples of when data has enhanced human rights and global development.

One example, which is commonly mentioned in discussions like these, is big data in relation to the right to health. The right to health is rather broad and, as stated in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, includes medical access, equal care, the right to prevention, treatment and control of diseases, and broader development areas such as the right to water and food.

An explicit positive example of how big data enhances the right to health is, as pointed out by Spratt & Baker (2015:13), the so-called remote patient monitoring (RPM). In developing countries, where the lack of access to doctors is often a fact, data can enable RPM as it allows medical staff to monitor and help those in need without actually being close-by. Instead, they can provide adequate health care through smart devices.

In addition, from a development perspective, there are according to Spratt & Baker (2015:22) strong indicators that the collection and analysis of big data from different sources could, in powerful systems, be used to warn people of issues such as natural or humanitarian disasters, famine, outbreaks of diseases, and other issues related to human security.

In my work, which relates a lot closer to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, I have perceived big data usage as more tied to repression than to justice. But when looking closer at the positive examples of how big data can be used, I must admit that I am a bit amazed.

I recently came in contact with the term citizen-generated data – data in the hands of the people. According to the network CIVICUS, this is data that civil society actors collect or produce in order to “monitor, demand or drive change on issues that affect them”. An initiative which has been started by the network is called DataShift, which monitors the sustainable development goals and increases government accountability so that the voices of the people can influence national and global policy in order for the most marginalised people to be heard by the most powerful.

When data ends up in the hands of the people who want to bring about change, I can truly see how also civil and political rights can gain from it. Let us return to the example of the Kenyan organisation Ushahidi, which I mentioned in my last post. To me, this is one of the most impressive examples of how ICT and data can prevent human rights abuses such as election violence and potential mass atrocities. The organisation is one of the most vocal groups in the East African region when it comes to applying ICT in relation to human rights, development and human security. According to the organisation, the goal is to “create the simplest way of aggregating information from the public for use in crisis response”.

Using the concept of crowdsourcing for social activism and public accountability, the organisation has created a model that has later been used for mapping not only election violence but also enhance humanitarian response in the crisis such as the Haiti earthquake and tracking malaria, Ebola and other diseases. The model has been coined as Activist Mapping, which is described as a combination of social activism, citizen journalism and geospatial information. What is great with Ushahidi is that it is, as also pointed out by Read, Taithe and Mac Ginty (2016:10), a typical example of when the information sharing is conducted on a horizontal level, meaning that citizens themselves have been able to use ICT and new media to inform and warn each other about urgent and often violent situations.

Citizen-Generated #Data

Photo: rsambrook

HarassMap is another example that is tied to the organisation Ushahidi. It is a volunteer-based initiative which aims to combat sexual harassment in Egypt. By collecting data that make up an online map, the hope is that the information can serve as a point of reference for “occurrences of incidents, positive interventions and available services” such as for example legal assistance.

It is clear that there is not only one but several examples of how data and ICT can be used to enhance or improve the respect for human rights. What I find interesting and relevant in all above-mentioned examples is the large focus on sharing. According to Spratt & Baker (2015:7), this phenomenon, in combination with the emergence of the internet, is one of the several improvements that enable data to be effective and have a real impact on human rights.

To finish off, I would like to return to a key point that I made in my last post. The effectiveness and “goodness” of big data depends to a large extent in whose hands it is placed. In my next post, I will discuss what happens when data slip through the hands of the people and instead ends up in the control of repressive actors.

Until then, do feel free to comment and share your thoughts.

 


24
Sep 17

Thinking About Data – But What About Human Rights?

Louise, September 24.

As has been mentioned in previous posts, we are constantly reminded that we live in a world where information and communication technologies (ICT) not only affect our lives but to a large extent shape them. These new media technologies are rapidly advancing both in scope and scale. Some authors, like Unwin (2017:42), suggest that the notable expansion of new technologies such as mobile devices and new social media platforms emerged in an era of optimism about ICT as means to positive change for the poorest and most marginalised people in the world.

Take a social media platform like Facebook for example. On this platform, which remains the largest social network site in the world, more than two billion users have the possibility to every day share small or large fragments of their lives to the public. The information, the so-called actively generated data (Spratt & Baker, 2015:7), that is shared can range from how a one person likes her eggs in the morning to a large-scale mapping of human rights abuses in a repressive country.

human rights

Photo: Caucasus Business Week | 22 Jan 2015

In large volumes, the data that is generated is called big data – large-scale information that can be collected, analysed, distributed and, not least, used by a second party. Fellow authors to this blog have already raised several of the general challenges and opportunities of big data. It is to me inevitable that we all in one way or another enter that discussion as it serves as a base for analysis.

What I would like to add to the discussion is the element of human rights and, in particular, the worrying trend of shrinking of civic space. What are the possibilities and issues in the intersection between big data and human rights? In addition, I would like to spend some time drawing attention to how ICT as such can provide tools that in one way or another ensure that big data is collected and used in a secure way that goes in line with international human rights standards.

Thinking about data and human rights, I have realised that there is a question that should not pass by without further discussion; who is using the data, and for what purpose?

This is a question that I personally come in contact with every day at work. As an employee at a large international human rights organisation, I am constantly introduced to various forms of big data usage. It allows me to see elements of potential on the one hand, as well as how it can be used for pure repression on the other.

human rights

Photo: Human Rights Data Analysis Group

On the bright side, I see examples such as when the Kenyan organisation Ushahidi launched a platform that allowed the citizens of Kenya to map post-election violence in 2008. The technology has since been used in various aspects, such as for example mapping the destruction of the Haiti earthquake in 2010. I have also seen examples of small grassroots organisations in South Sudan coming together to encourage efforts of citizen journalism that have drawn attention widespread human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings in the country in recent years.

But then I have on the other hand seen first hand how large collections of data can be used by repressive regimes in countries such as Vietnam, Russia and Cuba. Here, the information is rather used by authoritarian governments to silence critical voices of independent journalists, human rights lawyers, students and human rights defenders. The trend, that governments are increasingly able to collect and use data, including personal data, may well be one of the greater threats to human rights in our modern and digital time.

The way I see it, big data can, on the one hand, be a tool of justice, but on the other a weapon of repression. And to a large account, this depends on in whose hands it is placed.

This first blog post of mine should be seen as an introduction to what is to come. In my next post, I will highlight some of the examples where data has in one way or another enhanced human right and global development. In my third post, I will revisit the danger of having the data placed in the hands of repressive state and non-state actors. In my fourth and final post, I will try and have a concluding discussion on whose responsibility it is to ensure that the data handled correctly as well as if there might be ICT tools that could be used in that very process.

I am looking forward to the journey. Do feel free to comment as we go along.