To be honest, I was not surprised in the slightest when the Economist presented data as the new competitor to oil in the hierarchy of valuable commodities. However, I do agree with Amol Rajan of the BBC, that it cannot be compared with oil, mainly due to the fact that amount of oil is finite while data would not fit into this category. In addition, the main question regarding data is not where to find it but what to do with it when found.
From the development perspective, I would even go further and ask questions about data (and Big Data) like; How can the poor benefit from it? Can data really improve the HDI score of struggling countries? Is it another big hype that might end up in another commodity bubble? Or are the promises of ‘new and better life’ through data really achievable and, more importantly, sustainable?
In this blog post, I will explore the first question i.e. How can the poor benefit from data? Elisabeth Mason of The New York Times highlights that poverty is a ‘multifaceted phenomenon’ and the conditions could be connected to issues relating to employment, education and lack thereof or even over-dependency on existing safety nets. So how do you get to the hold of the relevant information about all these possible root causes of poverty and, more importantly, how do you interpret the gathered data and convert it to useful knowledge – in order to make the informed decisions to tackle poverty in a timely manner?
The beauty of Big Data is that it can help to not only predict the future trends but also track the progress of the relevant poverty relief programs in real time. This on its own, seems to be a great achievement, considering how policy makers, stakeholders and other change agents not only have a much clearer picture of what’s ahead but also of the impact it could have on timeframe from decision making to change implementation.
Whether you are optimistic or pessimistic about the role of Big Data in the development discourse, it is important to remember that Big Data on its own cannot change the world. For instance, it can enable you to locate where to build a hospital or where a farming community is struggling and needs extra financial or decision-making support, but it will not decide and implement the necessary practical changes for you. Therefore, Big Data has to be part of the overall organisational mission and long-term strategy, regardless of the category of the agents or collaborators (i.e. private, public or the third/NGO) involved in the relevant social change or development program. Otherwise, what will be the point of investing in and collecting lakes of data when the vision for what to do with the collected data is missing to start with?
On the other hand, before we get too excited about the future of Big Data and its role in tackling the challenges of development, particularly around poverty, we must not forget the risks that are attached with it, if used improperly or unequally. Whether we are talking about its use in kicking poor people off welfare in the US or its unequal access on a much larger global scale, leading to what the UN calls, a new inequality frontier, capable of splitting the world between those who know and those who don’t, there is a need for re-evaluation of the role of Big Data in our society and world.
Finally, Big Data is here to stay, and we are all contributors and collaborators in its creation, growth and value. The emergence of Big Data creates a massive opportunity to tackle poverty, but it also creates a huge responsibility to protect this resource and use it for good, and not harm.