Credit: Chris Yang
Datafication

Datafication and its impact on rights and values in international development

In these last couple of weeks I have explored the topics of big data and new technology and the dimensions of injustice that are reflected in these recent inventions. Learning about the concepts of data colonization, algorithmic bias and the echo chambers of social media has left me to question the potential of our online community and the era of data. Scholars have questioned new technology for centuries and there are diverging opinions about our digital area. In this blog article I have decided to further explore the critical discourse a bit closer to spread awareness and better understand what the threats are to what we have in front of us.

 

Datafication…

…can be explained as the technological process of turning aspects of our everyday lives into data. With an increasing amount of information being available, through our engagement with digital services; companies, organisations and governments have seen this as an opportunity to comprehend trends and behaviours through the collection and processing of big datasets. Today they are able to collect more information about people in comparison to 50 years ago. The discourses around datafication and big data differs. Cukier and Mayer-Schoenberger, two scholars whose paper The Rise of Big Data: How It’s Changing the Way We Think About the World describes their enthusiasm for the potential of big data to support businesses, organisations and governments. (ibid. 2013) 

 

We can learn from a large body of information things that we could not comprehend when we used only smaller amounts” Curier K, Mayer-Schoenberg V (2013. p.32)

 

In their article they argued that big data will profoundly change how governments work and the nature of politics. They believe that those who collects data effectively will be at a greater advantage of economic growth, provision of public services and combating threats. (2013, p.35). We can see resemblance of this in the development sector. In development studies, development has been defined as the use of resources to improve the standards of living of individuals and societies. Often it was thought that income and raise of capital would be possible by turning low-technology society into a modern high-technology society. (McEwan 2019, p.16) However, not everyone is as enthusiastic about the advancement of big data. 

 

A discourse informed by the West…

…argues Milan and Treré (2019). They have chosen to take a more critical approach to the advancement of datafication. In their publication Big Data from the South(s): Beyond Data Universalism they challenge the Western discourse around technological developments. They make an interesting observation, that the majority of the world’s population lives outside of the West, however many of the debates around datafication and big data were framed in an western context. The West has had a leading voice in interpreting the impact of datafication and technical development, they have done so from a western context, being: wealthy economies and advanced democracies with a long tradition of citizen involvement in politics and public affairs. What about those societies that live different from the West? Milan and Treré argues that the prevailing tech positivism that spur in the 2000’s failed to take into account the effects of datafication and big data on the global South that live in a quite different context from the West. (2019 p.320)

 

“How does datafication unfold in countries with fragile democracies, flimsy economies, impending poverty? In other words, what about the particularities and idiosyncrasies of the so-called Global South?” (Milan, Treré, 2019 p.320)

 

The advancement of technology has been far from a saviour for us all…

…it has replicated some of the more complex power-dynamics that exist in the world. In essence technology is a tool and it is people that power its functions. But what happens to those that are at the bottom of the data pyramid asks Arora in his paper with the same title. Datafication has been proposed as a way of emancipation and empowerment of poor people and communities, offering a sense of “inclusive capitalism”, argues Arora. (2016 p.1681) Together with the mediatization of development actions, with the advancement of world trade and the enthusiasm around new digital innovations and social media, the rapid developed of datafication has left the question of rights, ethics and transparency on the sidelines. 

 

Couldry and Mejias goes to the lengths of arguing that the power-relations between the Big Tech industry and the individuals they engage with resembles a new form of colonialism. Data colonialism, to be exact, is a situation of where datafication has enabled Big Tech to appropriate our data for capitalistic use. Couldry and Mejias means that the new forms of datafication, through social media, search engines etc, have allowed our social life to become an open resource for extraction – there for companies to use. (2019 p.336) They also argue that the power-relations in big tech are much more complex than the Global North and Global South colonial relations. In fact, there are at several dimensions and actors. On the global scale there are at least two big actors in the field, housing some of the biggest tech companies in the world (Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Huawei, Samsung and more), The United States and China. But this power-dynamics also play on a domestic scale where: 1) class and access to income, might influence what information one has access to and, 2) race, religion, political orientation can come to influence how governments surveill their population. (ibid p.337, Milan et al 2019 p.321). 

 

The documentary ‘All hail the algorithm of Al Jazeera that I shared in one of my previous blog post The race for data – Big Tech on the chase – brings up a very concrete situation in which this has been explored further. The documentary is based in Kenya, interviewing some of the leading activist organisations in this field, who have researched the technological advancement of China in Kenya. China is said to have provided funding for developing infrastructure, surveillance systems and Chinese companies provide some of the most popular and affordable mobile phones on the Kenyan market. 

 

“There is a whole lot of data that is being taken out of African countries and from African citizens, to be kept, handled and used by people who are not necessarily responsible or answerable to African people.” – Nanjala Nyabola, Writer and Political Analyst from the documentary Is Big Tech Colonising the Internet – All Hail the Algorithm by Al Jazeera. (2019) 

 

Giants such as Facebook have been documented to provide cheap connectivity and at the same time limit access to applications and search engines to benefit their own data collection. The race for data is one of power and capitalism, just as coined by Cukier and Mayer-Schoenberg (2013, p.35)

 

… what is mostly interesting in what I’ll call ‘techno-politics’ is the rush to ‘connect the unconnected’ and the rush to retain the connected in very specific platforms. A lot of these actors will do anything and everything to make sure at some point or others these users go through their platforms because it is all about the data.” Nanjira Sambuli, Digital Rights Advocate at the World Wide Web Foundation from the documentary Is Big Tech Colonising the Internet – All Hail the Algorithm by Al Jazeera. (2019) 

 

Credit: Max Chen
Credit: Max Chen

 

There are both frightening and exciting ways that the data collected are used.

Some are used for commercial purpose, sloley to resell the data, and others to understand patterns, trends and behaviour. The latter is done through algorithms – machines fed with datasets and trained to identify certain patterns. Algorithms are vastly used across sectors to feed us with content and advertisement that targets our behaviour patterns, to support institutions and companies in decision making and to identify trends and risks in various situations. Algorithms have been idolised for its ability to process and analyse a heavy amount of data at a scale and speed unimaginable just a couple of decades ago. The impact of algorithms are already having a major effect in how we are shaping aspects of our economic and social life. The excitement of the potential of big data has been high on political agendas in recent years but we are also starting to ask what the impact is as we are experiencing more and more errors related to the values and rights of people. An example is the cases of racial profiling and discrimination in the US due to the use of algorithms in the risk assessment and decision making of the justice sector. (The Perpetual Lineup (2016), Geshgorn D, 2020) 

 

… the idea of a “data-driven society” is problematic. It would encourage us to optimize the status quo rather than challenge it.” (Carr 2014)

 

The constant effort of optimising society through datafication often ends up ignoring existing inequalities, and this is a reflection of the diversity of people in the process of collecting data sets, developing criterias for machine-learning algorithms and implementing the algorithmic use. (Carr cited in Spratt and Baker 2015) 

 

Spratt and Baker carried out a study to analyse the impact, scenarios and policy options…

…connected to big data and international development (2015). The authors designed a conceptual framework to explore how big data can have a positive impact in development countries and they engaged with four different categories, economic, human development, rights and environment. They analyse the four categories through positive and negative impact and came to the following conclusion that is worth citing in its entire:

 

In some parts of the world, big data will have profound effects in many of these areas, in others, life may go on much as before for the foreseeable future. Where effects are significant, they will also be felt unevenly. Some countries – and stakeholder groups within countries – may see significant value generated, while others could be affected negatively (i.e. lose value) through the same processes. (Spratt and Baker 2015, p. 18)

 

I would like to shed a light on the right’s dimension of their framework as relating to the aspects of rights and privacy brought forward in this post. When looking at the positive impacts of big data on the rights aspect, few things were mentioned: indirect effects, such as security in opportunities to access education and learning online, in accessing research and insights, and the ability to form social movements online were some of the individual benefits.They also stress the potential of more government transparency through virtual means as something that would empower organisational structures. When looking at the negative impacts, the direct and indirect effects mentioned were privacy and surveillance. It is hard to surpass the fact that with more datafication governments and tech companies will be able to have a deeper insight into the daily lives of billions of people. (Spratt and Baker 2015, p.24)

 

The understanding of what is possible with big data and the awareness of data mining and privacy is limited to a small group of people. Although we can find more and more countries today that are looking for ways to ensure the rights and privacy of their citizens by passing data protection laws, many are still only in the phase of discussions. Important to note is that it is not only countries in the West that have data policies and laws in place, countries in the Global South such as Argentina, have also developed elaborate policies. (DLP Piper 2020, Santarino, Pronczuk 2020) In the last decade we have also seen international organisations such as the African Union and the European Union develop their respective conventions, The Malabo Convention in the AU and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the EU. (African Union 2014, European Union 2018)

 

Finally, I would like to finish this post by emphasising on a set or policy recommendations which I believe are just as relevant today as in 2015 when they were written by Spratt and Baker. The Key Policy Options for global and developing countries is to:

 

 

  • Enshrine citizens’ rights to access open data on their government’s activities in the process and develop mechanisms to encourage countries to adopt this approach in the meanwhile. 
  • Establish the principle that all individuals should have the right to see and control the information that is held about them by governments.  
  • Establish a similar principle with respect to the commercial sector. Explore the implications of allowing people to sell their personal data if they choose to, with a focus on the impacts of this in poorer countries and potential for exploitation.
  • Practice and encourage a presumption in favour of freedom of speech and association for all groups, regardless of how disagreeable their views are to the majority, within clear legal boundaries.  
  • Require companies from developed countries to employ the same approach to data privacy in all countries that they operate in as they do at home.

 

(ibid 2015, p.31)

 

Final Conclusion

I have a feeling that a lot of good intentions come from datafication, in creating solutions to support and make our societies more efficient, transparent and informative, but the disadvantages are very real and often rooted in the current constructs and values of our societies. Being able to see it displayed in technology gives another layer to the breach of privacy, discrimination and manipulation/misinformation. Finding solutions to technological challenges have to be coupled with finding solutions in real-life interactions, perhaps technology can act as a self-reflecting mirror in the cases where inequalities have been disregarded; and force us to reevaluate not only our datasets and codes, but our values, ethics and practices in real life. 

 

Personal Reflection

The experience of running a blog has been a new one for me. It has been one of great learning and collaboration. The topic of datafication is very new to me and these past couple of weeks have been a deep-dive into the understandings of the topic and the impact it has on on us as individuals, our rights and security, on organisations and institutions and from the perspective of big tech companies. It has been a pleasure running this blog and taking the viewers through my learning experience – I truly hope they have learned something new from what I have shared.

 

References:

Cover Photo Credit: Chris Yang

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