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…

 


22
Sep 17

Thinking about #data (for development)?

Eraptis, September 22.

Thinking about data (for development) has really got me thinking. What is data, and what makes it “big”? How can it be used in the context of development, and which data really matters – is all data created equal? Blogging to reflect on these and other questions, sharing our thoughts with the (social media) world, might help in putting these things into perspective. It may even change how we view things. But then again, to who are we talking – who reads our blogs, and which blogs do we read ourselves?

Tobias Denskus and Andrea S. Papan have taken a closer look into the practices of blogging by development practitioners. In their paper, they interviewed a set of international development bloggers’ on their motivations for maintaining a blog. Although the motivations might be many, their research primarily points towards some individual reasons for maintaining a blog. Among the reasons stated were venting and reflecting on everyday occurrences in the professional life of the bloggers, putting them “out there” for others to engage with. The “Others” mainly comprising other development professionals sharing and consuming information as a way to stay in tune with the “hot topics” of the development sphere, and as a way to show one’s own expertise on the issues of the day. The networking aspect of it all, thus, seems to be an important motivation for blogging – leading to both virtual and real meetings. From an organizational perspective, these things certainly have the potential to create innovative ideas, and lead to improved processes – but there seems to be something missing. As the authors also point out, for blogging to be truly impactful, it needs to turn away from this inward tendency to also engage with local communities.

Why is this important? In my view, it potentially reflects a common practice of development discourse to view the means to an end as the end itself. ICT and data seem to be no different. In the opening chapter of his recent book, Tim Unwin argues exactly this point when writing:

All too often, ICT4D research and practice has been technologically driven, and has therefore tended to replicate existing social and economic structures, thereby failing sufficiently to explore, interpret, or change the very conditions that have given rise to them.” – Tim Unwin 

So – how to challenge this? Perhaps a good starting point is to look at the very definition of “data”, defined by the Oxford dictionaries as “facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis”. Data, thus, is by its very nature positivistic. It can, at best, tell us what ”is”. But can data be normative? Can data tell us what ”should be”? As Spratt and Baker writes, the answer is not straight forward. While some would argue that if the data sets were just big enough theory as we know it would cease to exist, others point to such statements as hubris – dangerously overestimating the potential of technology to advance development.

Although I would tend to join ranks with the latter, I simultaneously share Unwin’s optimistic mindset that done right ICTs can indeed be a powerful medium for advancing development. But before that can happen we all need to engage in self-reflection and be critical about the appropriate use of ICT4D in order to consider all aspects of an implementation of data-driven development initiatives. At the heart of all this, Unwin argues, lies adopting a critical theory mindset. Among many things, this means doing away with the rather naïve and problematic notion that ICT, in and by itself, is good. And instead see it for what it is, one of many potential means to an end where the central aspect must be to understand the needs of those people for whom these kinds of interventions are intended. In the context of big data, this means working with and empowering those peoples to both generate and analyze this kind of information for themselves.

Before ending this post I would like to leave you with a thought related to one of my initial questions – is all data created equal? Well, Spratt and Baker note that big data analysis, particularly in the context of social media, is heavily biased towards information in the English language. If data is “facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis”, and most data analyzed is in English, then who’s voices are we really listening to?

Featured image: Eventfinda

 


21
Sep 17

Big Data and Development: Challenges and Opportunities

Aymen, September 21.

Even though algorithm, coding, Big Data is becoming part of our daily life; these technical terms remain complicated for us, common mortals. What is Big Data for instance?

In his book “Big Data Demystified: How Big Data Is Changing The Way We Live, Love And Learn,” David Feinleib defines it as the ability to capture, store, and analyze vast amounts of human and machine data, and then make predictions from it.

Big Data is used for various purposes, for example, to understand online consumers’ behaviour and orient advertisements to their specific needs, and is the base of the predictive power of search engines. It is transforming the nature of business and profits worldwide and is gaining in importance in the development sector.

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