Since the cradle of civilization, the world has been in a constant state of change. From the agricultural through to the industrial and the informational revolution, human beings have innovated and developed. With the 21st century and the rise of big data, our societies are changing quicker than ever, and according to estimations, the growth rate of big data will increase from 4,4 zettabytes in 2013 to 44 zettabytes or 44 trillion gigabytes in 2020. With 44 zettabytes of data, we have managed to create more data than there are known stars in the universe.
In the 80’s and early 90’s, it took three to four weeks sending a letter from Sweden to the Republic of Congo. I can still remember the excitement of receiving these handwritten letters from my father. Today, big data has changed the game, and at the push of a button, we can instantly communicate with the uttermost parts of the world. Big data is transforming and altering the world faster than we can imagine, and by managing this data in a responsible way, we got the potential to radically change the face of international development as we know it.
The importance of information and data gathering got ancient roots. Napoleon claimed that war is 90% information while JC Chenu, one of the founders of the Red Cross, gathered statistical information on the Crimean and Franco-Prussian war for political and economic purposes. (Read, Taithe, Mac Ginty 2016) Some 160 years after the Crimean war, data gathering still continues, with a major difference, it has been digitalized, something that the international development community has capitalized and repackaged in what is known as ICT4D.
The ICT4D movement within the UN system sprang to life as the result of the 2009 UN Global Pulse initiative launched by the then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The idea was to leverage innovation in digital data and find ways to rapidly collect data and analyze it in order to facilitate decision making in crisis situations. The rapid spread of mobile phones throughout the developing world was the driving force behind the initiative, and a UN Global Pulse report referred to the surge of mobile phones as the most significant event in the developing world since the decolonization movement.
Today, big data for sustainable development, start-ups, innovation, and entrepreneurship are part of the day to day development vocabulary, and most UN offices, be it UNDP, UNHCR, UNFPA or WFP are all equipped with a department dedicated to innovation and big data. These offices, in cooperation with partner organizations, are behind a range of different innovations aimed to save lives, educate and empower. While several pioneering solutions have seen the light, a recent research shows that not more than two or three innovations have truly gone scale, especially innovations connected to community managed acute malnutrition and cash transfer. (Managing Humanitarian Innovation. James, Taylor. 2018)
Big data is here to stay, reliable data and the gathering and analysis of it is crucial for the outcome of international development. However, while acknowledging the important role of big data and development in sub-Saharan Africa, there are several important questions that should be included in the discussions on ICT4D. Is the mobilization of youth behind start-ups, innovation, and big data, diverging African youth from important issues such as pushing for democracy, the rule of law and the fight against corruption? Knowing how international development organizations are working, could it be that digital humanitarianism is driven by what is possible instead of what’s is needed? Is the promotion of big data strengthening the neoliberal world system? Is it possible that African governments will be strengthened in a similar way to Chinese authorities who trough big data have managed to stabilize their rule?
ICT4D provides a window of opportunity for international development agencies to assist the continent in harnessing the benefits of data. While there is no doubt that sub-Saharan Africa needs to strengthen its focus on big data and develop strategies to gain control of its data, it is important to consider questions like the ones asked above for the sake of democracy and human rights. Digital humanitarian leaders need to make sure that big data won’t undermine democratic values, if these values are challenged, one could claim that international development agencies promoting ICT4D are in the business of de-development rather than development.