(Big) Data’s Entry Into Our Lives: Should We Worry?

In my previous post I talked about why it is important to be counted (link). With the story in the beginning, the post also touched upon the skepticism towards being counted. In this blog, we have discussed some of the negative sides of big data in development and what impact data and social media can have in democratic processes, in terms of data justice. Here, I will reflect on the inevitability of data in our everyday lives. Does it only have good sides? Can we trust that information about ourselves will not get misused? Are we being surveilled and should we be skeptical?

As we have pointed out in our previous post on this blog, it becomes more and more difficult to resist the effects that technology has on our lives, in terms of for example the marketing on social media such as Facebook that bases on data produced from our use of internet. As users of various apps on our phones, «we» (at least the younger users of these apps) have almost stopped worrying about the information that the apps ask us to give in order to fullfill their function properly: information about our current location, our phone number, our photos on Facebook or on our phone, etc. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the user of the app will often provide this information to make the app work as well as possible.

Another example before we go on: I recently read an acticle in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten about how Estonia has digitalised 99 % of its public services, based on a digital infrastructure called X-road. Estonia has introduced services such as e-Voting, e-Health (digitalised medical journals), e-Tax, e-School and e-Residency, to name a few. Estonia has become a leading country in digital innovation, and according to the e-Estonia website, Estonian digital solutions have been exported to 35 countries. Estonia now holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union, and has pronounced that its «first priority will be to put free flow of data across borders on the agenda» (Braathen, 2017, p. 26).

An Estonian e-Residency card. Photo: Masayuki Kawagishi

These are examples of the fact that data-producing technologies are an inevitable part of life in the 21st century, and trying to resist it might be seen as going back in time in terms of technological development. What is the point, then, to dwell upon the potential negative effects of them?

My first immediate answer will be: because they are an inevitable part of our lives, and because data, and big data, could bring along reasons to be skeptical. Estonia’s e-Residency service has been criticised for potentially attracting criminals who might misuse the system to avoid punishment by operating via Estonia (ibid). Also according to the article in Aftenposten, Estonia’s different public agencies’ websites as well as the president’s website were hacked in 2007. However, according to the article, there has been no cases of misuse of e-Residency so far, and the cyber attack was successfully stopped and followed by the establishment of the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Tallinn.

In his book «Digital Humanitarians», Meier addresses the problem of false data in social media and its effect on humanitarian work. Using examples from aid work after the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile in 2010, Meier shows how «as a result of false information, urgent humanitarian aid could be allocated to the wrong area, for example, which could result in wasted time and resources; at worst, it could cost lives» (Meier, 2015, p. 33). Other examples are fake photographs of the hurricane Sandy in 2012 and false information on Twitter about the White House being attacked in 2013. (Meier, 2015, p. 34). But, as Meier shows, information from social media can be verified using tools such as for example crowd computing and artificial intelligence. This does not solve all the problems, but the examples show that advanced tools for facing these challenges have been developed.

Should we be worried, then? In terms of our own privacy, we should at least be conscious of how we use technology and social media and what information we provide about ourselves. Technological infrastructures such as the Estonian one has proven to be safe, although some «threats» against it have occured.

As Spratt and Baker conclude, big data will continue to have a large impact, and it will vary from country to country how they make use of the data. Big data definitely implies risks, but they will be more «acute» in some countries than in others (Spratt and Baker, 2016, p. 33). To secure that the benefits of big data will apply in both developing and developed countries, a framework «that protects people’s rights but also gives them the confidence to share the data that are needed for these benefits to be realised» is needed. Giving individuals, communities and societies access to and control over their own data is at the heart of this» (ibid). Hopefully, an aknowledgement of this need from research on big data should give us even less reason to worry.

References:

Braathen, F. (2017): Heldigitale Estland vil snu opp-ned på Europa: Hvordan klarte den lille eks-sovjetrepublikken å bli et av verdens mest digitaliserte samfunn? Article in Aftenposten A-Magasinet no. 41, 13th October 2017.

Meier, P. (2015): Digital Humanitarians: How BIG DATA Is Changing the Face of Humanitarian Response. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

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

The Social Solutionism of Big Data

The Social Solutionism of Big Data
Image Source: Google

I recently came across an article about an experiment where the author tries to opt out of big data. Technological solutionism and big data can be an important factor in one’s every day activities. In fact, big data is already an integral part of our lives. Our always connected devices generate data every second logging our activity and unique personal preferences that we make online.

Furthermore, our online actions as consumers produce data which in its turn can be used in the process of predicting tendencies in human behavior. In the age of data and analytics, everything we do generates data. Always on technological devices, living creatures, everything can be explained through the means of data. And it looks like all of them can store and produce data as well . Perhaps one day we will be able to create, store and consume data by ourselves and for ourselves. It seems like data is one of the top words that will characterize our century. Or at least a good part of it.

The Inevitable Solutionism

In his “To Save Everything, Click Here”, Evgeny Morozov argues that the folly of the technological solutionism leads to a world where the power of algorithms eradicates imperfection. And where the rules imposed by the Silicon Valley shape our future (Morozov, 2013).

The author provides some examples for such a technological solutionism inspired by “Zuckerberg’s tyranny of the social”. There we find evidence that “activities get better when performed socially” (Morozov, 2013). The BinCam project which makes our bins “smarter” (by taking photos of what you just have thrown away), “more social” (by uploading these photos to your Facebook account) is one of these examples that promise to save our planet.

Another interesting example that Morozov gives is the prototype teapot. It  “either glow[s] green (making tea is okay) or red (perhaps you should wait)” (Morozov, 2013) the hardware of which “queries Britain’s national grid for aggregate power-usage statistics” (Morozov, 2013).

Algorithmization of Ethics?

But as Morozov suggests, nowhere in the “academic paper that accompanies the BinCam presentation do the researchers raise any doubts about the ethics of their undoubtedly well-meaning project” (Morozov, 2013). The situation is similar to the case of the teapot prototype where “social engineers have never had so many options at their disposal” (Morozov, 2013). He further argues that resolving complex social problems with the help of the right algorithm is more likely to cause unforeseen effects and repercussions that can generate “more damage than the problems they seek to address” (Morozov, 2013).

The more big data and analytics become integral part of our lives, the more difficult it is to refuse to let technology control simple daily activities. And doing your everyday tasks the old-fashioned way seems more complex and more impossible. Even a simple attempt to opt out from marketing detection (like using Tor for browsing Facebook or Twitter) can make your online activity look suspicious and illicit (Vertesi, 2014).

But as Morozov suggests, big data without any connections to social networks can do quite positive things too. He mentions the BigBelly Solar and its positive impact on cutting “garbage-collecting sorties from 17 to 2.5 times a week” in the city of Philadelphia and the Street Bump project where, thanks to motion detectors in smartphones, an app helps with reporting potholes on the streets of the city of Boston. In other words, people use data for good or bad purposes. And the path we choose depends on our shared vision of the future of our society.

References

Morozov, E. 2013: To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, New York, NY: Public Affairs.

Vertesi, J. 2014, My Experiment Opting Out of Big Data Made Me Look Like a Criminal, Last Checked: 17/10/2017, Retrieved from: http://time.com/83200/privacy-internet-big-data-opt-out/

Relying on social media for data in disaster response

Working for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), I’m required on the occasional weekend to check MSF’s Twitter account for questions and activity to respond to. The account is currently followed by 100,000 followers.

On a recent weekend, I came across a tweet at @MSF which got me thinking:

My response was as follows:

In the last few weeks, the world has been hit by two Category five hurricanes through the Caribbean and the United States (Wikipedia, 2017)– Hurricanes Irma and Maria – and two powerful earthquakes in Mexico. (Médecins Sans Frontières, 2017) My thought was, how much information do we get in disaster response such as the events in the Caribbean and in Mexico based on tweets such as these? How often do we see people pointing responders – using social media – in the direction of people who need help? People flagging what the scale of disaster is? And then when the response does come, how much is social media a tool for where can people go to help, or even criticise the repose?

In Hurricane Irma, first the scene was set:

Roisin Read and her colleagues outlined in a paper on humanitarian response information systems that the hurricane that struck Haiti in 2010 first outlined the potential of social media in humanitarian response:

At first the goal was simply to map the unfolding crisis and identify where people had moved, and it was not connected to any official humanitarian response efforts. However, as the digital map grew, emergency responders began to see how it might assist them. The processes of the digital humanitarians began to change to take a more active (though geographically remote) role in the response… the Haitian crisis highlighted the fact that real time data could now feature in humanitarian responses. (Roisin Read, 2015)

Social media – in this case Twitter, using data on phones, perhaps one of the few ways to get information out in the aftermath of a disaster like this – allowed Barbuda to tell the world just how bad things were:

The situation throughout much of the Caribbean after Irma was desperate; but social media tools allowed responders to consider what to do next – “good contextual knowledge is essential in designing humanitarian responses.” (Roisin Read, 2015)

Next, comes the help – targeted to those areas that need it most:

Büscher et al note that crowd-sourced information in the hands of digital volunteer networks ‘can support faster and more detailed awareness of the needs of affected communities and the nature and extent of damage. (Roisin Read, 2015)

…or the fundraising campaigns…

And few disasters pass by without some criticism being levelled at one or more responding institutions. In this case, the British government received stinging rebukes on their slow response, in contrast to the French government – and in contrast to one of the main points of using social media tools in disaster response “is that data can be gathered and conveyed at greater speed, with an impact on the timeliness of humanitarian responses.” (Roisin Read, 2015)

So is social media tools like Twitter used in response to disasters? Yes. Are they useful for responders? Yes, absolutely. As Read and her colleagues conclude, “The promise of greater accuracy and speed of information gathering, together with the novelty aspect that technology can bring, may constitute material power and demand-resource reallocation within international organisations and INGOs.” (Roisin Read, 2015)

The power of social media behind disasters is that they can tell the whole story. From initial disaster – often even capturing the disaster itself – to the consequences, to the response, to the response assessment.

 

Bibliography
Médecins Sans Frontières. (2017, September 21). Mexico: MSF assists people following Mexico City earthquake. Retrieved from Médecins Sans Frontières: http://www.msf.org/en/article/mexico-msf-assists-people-following-mexico-city-earthquake
Roisin Read, B. T. (2015, December 22). Data hubris? Humanitarian information systems and the mirage of technology. Third World Quarterly.
Wikipedia. (2017, September). 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season. Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2017_Atlantic_hurricane_season

The Importance of Being Counted

The title reminds me of the Norwegian children’s story by Alf Prøysen about the little goat who counted to ten. In the story, the goat begins to count himself, and when he meets his friends he asks if he can count them too. «I don’t think I have the courage, I’m not even sure my mother would let me», says his friend the calf and tries to get away, but the goat counts him anyway: «I am one, you are two.»

The calf starts to cry and calls for his mother, and when the mother cow arrives, the goat counts her, too. «Now he counted you too!» says the calf, and the mother cow becomes furious. The calf counts more and more animals as he is chased around, and in the end they arrive to a river and the goat jumps on to a boat with all the animals after him.

The skipper on the boat panics and cries out: «Does anyone here know how to count? This boat can only take ten animals!» The goat counts all the animals: they are ten, so they are safe. The story ends as all the animals applaude the goat and he becomes the skipper’s helper on the boat.

You might say that this example is a bit silly and childish, but on the other hand it certainly does illustrate both the skepticism towards and the importance of being counted.

Taylor and Schroeder (2014) talk about the importance of being counted (Taylor and Schroeder, 2014, p. 506) when referring to Morten Jerven’s highly interesting book «Poor Numbers» about the lack of accurate data on Africa and in African development work. According to Jerven’s experience and findings, the statistics on African economy are inaccurate, arbitrary and misleading. Consequently, of course, important decisions are being made by actors in African development on the basis of poor numbers.

This illustrates one central example of the relevance of data for development and, more precisely, the importance of gathering accurate (and enough) data to be used in development policy. It illustrates one of the major problems when it comes to data gathering in developing, low- and middle-income countries is that data gathering is poor, or even absent (Taylor and Schroeder, 2014, p. 504).

And why is it important to be counted? We have already answered that question: simply said, because decisions are made and measures are implemented on the basis of the data. For example, counting the population in a country is «vital for the measurement and practise of development» (Jerven, 2013, p. 56). Therefore, being counted also means getting access to resources. (Taylor and Schroeder, 2014, p. 504).

Another example of the importance of being counted is Aadhaar, a biometric ID system database in India. The Aadhaar number is a 12-digit number that Indian citizens receive on the basis of both demographic (name, age, etc.) and biometric (fingerprints, iris scan) information.

Aadhar can be used, citing from the Unique Identification Authority of India’s website: “a basis/primary identifier to roll out several Government welfare schemes and programmes for effective service delivery…” and “is a strategic policy tool for social and financial inclusion, public sector delivery reforms” and so on.

The problem is that not everyone can be identified by their fingerprints or by an iris scan. As pointed out by Taylor (2017), people who do heavy manual work may not have fingerprints and people who are malnourished may not have good enough iris scans (Taylor, 2017, p. 5). Therefore, the Aadhaar system excludes the poorest part of the population.

That being said, according to Taylor, it seems like Aadhaar recognizes the challenges of the system and is working on how to reach more of India’s citizens (ibid).

For Morten Jerven, a solution for poor numbers in African economy is more knowledge and research emphasizing the relevance and quality of data in (African) development. A first step towards better data is certainly made by recognizing the problem. It now remains for researchers in development to pick up the thread.

References:

About Aardaar, from the UIDAI website, retreived from https://uidai.gov.in/your-aadhaar/about-aadhaar.html on October 11th, 2017.

Jerven, M. (2013): Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled By African Development Statistics and What To Do About it. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Sandnes (2014), Geitekillingen som kunne telle til ti, Sandnes media, retreived from https://tv.nrk.no/program/msue11004013/geitekillingen-som-kunne-telle-til-ti on October 10th, 2017.

Taylor, L. 2017: What is data justice? The case for connecting digital rights and freedoms on the global level, draft paper.

Taylor, L., Schroeder R. 2015: Is bigger better? The emergence of big data as a tool for international development policy. GeoJournal 80: 503-528.

Big Data from a Feminist Perspective: #HerNetHerRights

Big Data from a Feminist Perspective #HerNetHerRights
Image Source: Google

One of the main topics on our blog is big data and its importance in international development and human development. In my previous posts I had the opportunity to cover the impact of big data on development and the challenges of using big data for humanitarian purposes. And I talked about how big data and new online technologies pose some risks related to privacy and ethics. In other words, how problems from our everyday ‘analogue’ life become real issues in the virtual reality online.

Online violence, especially violence against women and girls, is one of the many serious issues that arise as a consequence of our always-connected world.

There are initiatives and projects that fight against these kind of inequalities that tend to form online. And to analyze the tendencies of online violence against women in Europe, the European Women’s Lobby (EWL) began to lead a project called HerNetHerRights.

What We Need to Know About the #HerNetHerRights Project?

  • Its main purpose is to fight against online violence where women and girls are the victims of male violence.
  • There will be an online conference on October 13th 2017 where activists, researchers and survivors will come together to discuss the current trends and new challenges related to the problem of online violence against women and girls.
  • The sponsor of the #HerNetHerRights project is Google.
Image Source: Twitter - #HerNetHerRights
Image Source: Twitter

The event is part of the annual week-long event called “European Week of Action for Girls 2017”. There will be a discussion on Twitter after the conference. And participants can further comment on the issues reported during the conference.

HerNetHerRights’ conference agenda includes discussions around different forms of online violence, such as:

  • Feminist implications of big data and privacy
  • Analysis of reports on cyber violence against women
  • Sharing experiences from first hand

Big Data and Privacy from a Feminist Perspective

The topic that I’m personally interested in is the one that will be covered by Nicole Shephard. During this event, she will be sharing her experiences with the ‘feminist implications of big data and privacy’ (European Women’s Lobby, 2017) and I personally expect her to also refer to her work called “Big data and sexual surveillance” where Shephard shows the challenges and opportunities that women (and not only) encounter when data, surveillance, gender and sexuality meet together.

In her “5 reasons why surveillance is a feminist issue” Shephard refers to De Lillo (1985) arguing that the “fictional speculation that “you are the sum total of your data” has proven quite visionary” (Shephard, 2017).

In conclusion, big data and the use of technologies for analyzing it don’t seem to be neutral. And they have their own biases. For example, Shephard argues that “racist algorithms” such as Google’s “unprofessional hair” results can be found everywhere in our daily life (Shephard, 2017). And, unfortunately, the end results are not neutral at all. But we should also consider the fact that errors happen and “unprofessional hair” can be as unintentional as “what is the national anthem of Bulgaria”.

References

European Women’s Lobby, 2017, Last Checked: 8/10/2017, Retrieved From: http://www.womenlobby.org/HerNetHerRights

Nicole Shephard, 2016, Big data and sexual surveillance, Last Checked: 8/10/2017, Retrieved From: https://www.apc.org/sites/default/files/BigDataSexualSurveillance_0_0.pdf

Nicole Shephard, 2017, 5 reasons why surveillance is a feminist issue, Last Checked: 8/10/2017, Retrieved From: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/78521/1/Engenderings%20%E2%80%93%205%20reasons%20why%20surveillance%20is%20a%20feminist%20issue.pdf

Taylor, L. 2017: What is data justice? The case for connecting digital rights and freedoms on the global level, draft paper.

Humanitarian Data in a Development Context

Humanitarian Data in a Development Context
Image Source: Google

Big data is an opportunity for the entire global community to better understand what is happening around us in real time, all over the world. If in 2017 there are more than 7 billion mobile phones in the world, around 6 billion of them are used by people from developing countries. This leads to the production of large amounts of data as these people go about their daily lives.

Using Big Data Safely and Responsibly as a Public Good

Some of the UN Global Pulse initiatives that rely on user generated data online include the following example projects. These demonstrate how big data and mapping techniques are important for both humanitarian action and development:

  • Estimating Socioeconomic Indicators From Mobile Phone Data in Vanuatu. This ongoing project takes into consideration results from recent studies that show that data from mobile phones (Call Details Records and airtime credit purchases) can help in the process of understanding socioeconomic factors where official statistics are absent. The research project uses data from a local telecom operator in Vantau in order to compare if the officially provided statistical data in terms of education and household issues is accurate enough.
  • Exploring the Potential of Mobile Money Transactions to Inform Policy. The project analyses data provided by one of Uganda’s mobile operators to understand if the usage of mobile banking services depends on social networks, time and location. The result of this still ongoing project would help local authorities better understand the decision making process behind these services.
  • Informing governance with social media mining. This project analyzes the first live TV Presidential debates in Uganda in 2016, and it’s direct impact public opinions expressed on Facebook and social media in general. The analysis included 50,000 Facebook posts published publicly during the first two presidential debates on TV. The results of the project confirmed the positive impact of TV debates on democracy in Uganda.

Using Big Data for Mapping Our Future

Haiti in 2010 is considered as the initial moment in digital humanitarianism. And the most used platform for the biggest part of the digital response was Ushahidi. It was created in Kenya to help with tracking the violence after the elections. People used Ushahidi earlier in 2008 so that anyone could send in reports of violence via a web-form or SMS. Then they added the results to a Google map of Kenya (Read, Taithe, Mac Ginty, 2016, p. 9).

By learning from the past and by finding ways to protect the privacy of online users, organizations such as UN Global Pulse already have projects that use the electronically generated data from subscribers around the world. Of course, this data is useful for various purposes. But in most of the cases the gathered data is for creating maps. For example, all over the UN system there are maps. Maps of human rights violations, maps of poverty, maps of crop yields, etc.

In most of the cases, these maps are somehow static and don’t provide 100% reliable data in real time. As Patrick Meier argues, “the radical shift from static, “dead” maps to live, dynamic maps, requires that we reconceptualize the way we think about maps and use them”(Meier 2012, p. 89).

Dodge and Perkins (2009) suggest that “essential to new mapping techniques are imaging technologies, in particular satellite data”. And this results in “radically reshaping the ways different groups comprehend space and place” (Dodge and Perkins 2009, p.497). But they both remind us that “although access to much of this imagery is free, this disguises the powerful interests of corporations such as Google and Microsoft, who produce and own the images and control what we see and thus how we see the world through them” (Dodge and Perkins 2009, p.497).

The Duality of Big Data

In fact, a telecom company is able to track where its users move in real time. And by using this data, it’s possible to create maps of the movements of the population for example. This data can contain information about people going after a disaster, or people going to schools, clinics, etc. Current technology provides methods to create precise maps of people’s behavior in certain situations.

In other words it all depends on how we use and interpret big data. Big data seems to rely on human interpretation. Crawford et al (2013) note that we need to “more broadly consider the human impact – both short and long term – of how data is being gathered and used” (Crawford et al 2013, p. 4.). And “the technologies required to interrogate big data may mean that its use is restricted to a privileged few” (Read, Taithe, Mac Ginty, 2016, p. 11.). Boyd and Crawford argue that big data is ‘a cultural, technological and scholarly phenomenon’ combining technology (advanced computation power and algorithmic accuracy), analysis (identifying patterns to make claims) but also mythology; the belief that it offers new and higher knowledge ‘with the aura of truth, objectivity, and accuracy’ (Read, Taithe, Mac Ginty, 2016, p. 10.)

References

Boyd and Crawford, “Critical Questions,” 663., Last Checked: 1/10/2017, Retrieved from: https://people.cs.kuleuven.be/~bettina.berendt/teaching/ViennaDH15/boyd_crawford_2012.pdf

Crawford, K., Faleiros, G., Luers, A., Meier, P., Perlich, C., and Thorp, J. (2013) Big Data, Communities and Ethical Resilience: A Framework for Action. White Paper for PopTech and RockfellerFoundation. Last Checked 01/10/2017, Retrieved from: https://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/report/big-data-communities-and-ethical-resilience-a-framework-for-action/

Dodge M, Perkins C., The ‘view from nowhere’? Spatial politics and cultural significance of high-resolution satellite imagery. Geoforum. 2009 Jul;40(4):497-501.

Meier, P. 2012: Crisis Mapping in Action: How Open Source Software and Global Volunteer Networks Are Changing the World, One Map at a Time, Journal of Map & Geography Libraries

Read, R., Taithe, B., Mac Ginty, R. 2016: Data hubris? Humanitarian information systems and the mirage of technology, Third World Quarterly, forthcoming. Last Checked: 1/10/2017, Retrieved from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01436597.2015.1136208

 

Data for Data’s Sake?

”Data has become increasingly important to the way we think and talk about conflict and our humanitarian responses to it”, Read, Taithe and Ginty write in their article ”Data hubris? Humanitarian information systems and the mirage of technology” from 2016. They exemplify this by referring to the UN High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda’s ”call for a ”data revolution””, which ”would draw on existing and new sources of data to fully integrate statistics into decision making, promote open access to, and use of, data” (UN High Level Panel; Read, Taithe and Ginty (2016, p. 1).

However, ”data is not knowledge”, as the authors of this article emphasize, and they refer to geographer Trevor Barnes’ question: are we generating useful knowledge or are we collecting ”data for data’s sake”? (Read, Taithe, Ginty, 2016, p. 2).

I can relate this very well to my experience from advising newly arrived refugees at my home town in Northern Norway. From the moment when new asylum seekers or refugees arrive in Norway, the different authorities that are involved in the processing of the refugees’ cases will begin to gather data about them and their families. Throughout their asylum process and after they are granted a residence permit, the same data will be gathered again and again because so many different bodies or stakeholders are involved. In our work, therefore, I sometimes question myself if we are collecting ”data for data’s sake”. New technology gives us opportunities to collect, store and manage data in new ways. At the same time, the requirement on data collection, together with applying new (and sometimes hard to implement) technology where the data is stored, has the tendency to be caught up in bureocratic procedures that may make our work much less efficient than it could have been.

In their article, Read et al. conclude that ”the declarations of emancipation via a data revolution are premature” (Read et al, 2016, p. 12). The cases for this conclusion may be different from my case of data gathering about refugees, however the conclusions can be applied here as well. The authors of the article suggest, among other things, an improvement of the data-processing capabilities of humanitarian organisations as well as a request to ”collect enough, but not excessive, information” (p 13). This needs to be taken into consideration in the “data revolution” that is called for by the UN High Level Panel.

This is not intended to be a pessimistic statement against the ICT for development (ICT4D) or the ”datafication” of humanitarian work, but is meant to highlight one of the challenges one is facing when the digital world meets humanitarian work or development practice. New perspectives on this will come in the following blog posts.

References: Roisin Read, Bertrand Taithe & Roger Mac Ginty (2016): Data hubris? Humanitarian information systems and the mirage of technology, Third World Quarterly.

UN High Level Panel, Economies through Sustainable Development.

Big Data and Its Impact on International Development

Big Data and Its Impact on International Development7
Image Source: Google

The term big data is used to describe an enormous volume of data which can be both structured and unstructured. And at the same time, this data is difficult to understand if using conventional information processing techniques (Wikipedia 2017, Big data).

Definitions of big data “vary by industries such as information technology (IT), computer science, marketing, social media, communication, data storage, analytics, and statistics” (Spratt and Baker, 2016, p. 8).

Big Data and Development

In terms of international development, big data provides important contributions in key development areas. These areas include resource management, economic productivity, health care, natural disaster, job market, etc. The analysis of online user-generated data provides opportunities for people from all over the world to have their voice heard.

In their research, Spratt and Baker argue that big data “will be the fuel that drives the next industrial revolution, radically reshaping economic structures, employment patterns and reaching into every aspect of economic and social life” (Spratt and Baker, 2016, p. 4). If in 1946 the first computers weighed thousands of kilograms and could do no more than 500 calculations per second, these days, the IBM Watson supercomputer can process 500 gigabytes per second. That is the equivalent of reading one million books per second.

However, as Spratt and Baker suggest, we should “distinguish big data from two related concepts: information and communications technology (ICT) and ‘open data’” (Spratt and Baker, 2016, p. 8). They argue that “big data is not always open, and at times will not be accessible without special skills or software” (Spratt and Baker, 2016, p. 8).

Big Data and Its Direct Impact on Development

As suggested by Spratt and Baker (2016), the potential impacts of big data can be classified as direct or indirect.

Directly, big data contributes to the process of creating new markets which are based on both production and consumption of data. Inevitably, this leads to the creation of a new complex physical infrastructure that is able to fully support the process of data production and consumption.

The three V’s of big data stimulated innovations in software, including data analysis, data management and networking. This allowed the creation of many now multi billion companies. Such companies had their start from open source projects such as Hadoop which was initially created to store and process huge amounts of data (Spratt and Baker, 2016, p. 8).

Thus, data science becomes a profession and data scientists combine “the skills of software programmer, statistician and storyteller/artist to extract the nuggets of gold hidden under mountains of data” (The Economist, 2010). Such employment opportunities require special qualification. And the demand for this special kind of knowledge creates these new employment opportunities.

In fact, these consequences have a great impact on developing countries. Many corporations outsource their data analysis departments to developing countries where computer skills are high and costs are low. And “skilled young adults in Uruguay will find themselves competing for certain types of jobs against their counterparts in Orange County” (MSNBC 2013). Amazon Mechanical Turk and Samasource (a non-profit business) are some of the organizations that promote the outsourcing of digital work to unemployed people around the world.

Big Data and Privacy

In terms of privacy, the buying and selling of data can create negative impacts as well. Once they collect the data, consumers are not in control of that data (Craig and Ludloff, 2011). And that’s an issue in both developed and developing countries.

Furthermore, issues like privacy and discrimination seem to be working in favor of the digital divide.  In fact, “while data-driven discrimination is advancing at exactly the same pace as data processing technologies, awareness and mechanisms for combating it are not” (Taylor, 2017, p.2). This contributes to various issues like online data privacy, transparency, (technological) inequality… (Wikipedia 2017, Big data). In this regard, Taylor draws a parallel between the idea of justice in general and the idea of data justice. We need data justice to “determine ethical paths through a datafying world” (Taylor 2017, p. 2). Linnet Taylor argues that the importance of big data and datafication and their positive impact on “citizenship, freedom and social justice are minimal in comparison to corporations and states’ ability to use data to intervene and influence” (Taylor, 2017, p. 2).

The Indirect Impact of Big Data

Indirectly, various institutions and sectors will experience the positive influence of the impact of big data. Because it can increase efficiency and productivity. Methods using big data can create organizational improvements of companies, public institutions, NGOs and even social movements. But at the same time, it may negatively impact concerns around privacy and civil rights. And this may lead to increasing social and economic inequalities such as the so called ‘digital divide’.

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