The potential and limits of Big Data in Africa

By Bernard Sabiti

The term “Big Data” as being currently used in the Data/Digital revolution emphasis of the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda refers to “Extremely large data sets that may be analyzed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behavior and interactions”. It is “An all-encompassing term used to refer to any collection of data sets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using on-hand data management tools or traditional data processing applications

From November 14-19, 2015, I attended a conference on “Big Data in the Global South”  in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This was an international conference on Big Data organized by the Rio-based think-tank ITS, Institute for Technology and Society. It was attended by high level representatives of governments of different countries, as well as a select group of experts in the field, funders, and key representatives from civil society, academia and private sector. The purpose of the conference was to develop practical strategies to address the challenges posed by the use of Big Data by both governments and corporations, with a focus on the Global South.

Some of the discussions on how Big Data was already impacting the development of “The global South” (countries located in the Southern Hemisphere that includes both countries with medium and low human development) was too simplistic in my view, ignoring the social-economic and political contexts and diversities of the developing world, especially when it comes to Africa.

Big Data in Africa

There is no doubt about the potential of Big Data in Africa’s development.  Africa has taken great strides in the technological and policy prerequisites necessary for big data impact. The explosion in the growth of the ICT industry, the rise of the use of mobile technology for financial and development transactions have been well documented. In Uganda for example, Mobile money financial transactions are changing the way business is done, helping the rural poor leverage microfinance and carry out profitable self-sustaining small businesses without any need for big banks.

With more than 629 million mobile-phone users in Africa, phone data presents enormous opportunities for decision-makers. From humanitarian assistance to disease epidemiology and climate change mitigation, these data are helping boost life-changing decision making.

At the sidelines of the event, I explained some of these issues

Data-based decision making is connecting countries on the vast continent than ever before, from regional integration in general to trade cooperation specifically.  For example, from The African Union’s Regional Integration Index, a data aggregation tool summarizing info on more than 70 indicators, enabling countries to check the performance of peers in their regional economic communities, to the massive databases of the continent’s telecom giants and the satellite-based data collection by some entities, there are few better places where the promise of the global Data Revolution is more apparent.

Danger of Overstating impacts of Big Data

There is need for caution however, when discussing the impact of Big Data on Africa’s development.

The excitement generated by the possibilities described above has sometimes led to simplistic cause-effect attribution of change to Big Data, without adequate consideration of the “correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation” truism which would mean taking stock of Africa’s unique Social-political, technological context and other factors before determining matter-of-factly whether some of the changes we see in these studies are solely a result of data.

A number of studies on the impact of Big Data and open data in Africa have already been done, some with some sweeping conclusions that call for caution from advocates and researchers.

Privacy issues of Big Data

Data protection and privacy, important elements of Big Data are still underdeveloped in most of Africa. Most countries still do not have Data Protection and privacy laws in place, and given that most governments are hybrid regimes with authoritarian and semi-democratic tendencies, there is a danger that Big Data may be exploited to the detriment of rights of citizens. Telecommunications companies remain biggest holders of Big Data in Africa, and most of them are in cahoots with Governments and easily relinquish client data which is used for surveillance of critics, as seen in the recent mass apposition surveillance scandal in Uganda. This is an issue that is always put at the periphery or sometimes not mentioned at all in touting the impact of Big Data.

At the “Big Data in the Global South” Conference hosted by the Institute of Technology and Society in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, in November, Which I was privileged to attend, these and other issues were spotlighted, but again there wasn’t enough appreciation of the fact that the “Global South” is by no means a universal region. Africa especially stands apart for its unique historical, technological and sociopolitical context and this affects its experiences with any development interventions.

In conclusion

Overstating the impact of Big Data, open data and other data or techie-enabled interventions to development is to do a disservice to these initiatives in the long run as it prevents a more thorough understanding of the challenges and opportunities of these initiatives for better conceptualization, targeting and improvement.

The takeaway therefore is that Big Data doesn’t, and cannot provide all the answers in development theory, or practice in Africa, even with its obvious potential. Acknowledging Big Data’s obvious limits helps development actors and big data advocates to devise ways of improving the impact.

Most data scientists are modest in acknowledging these limits. We advocates however, tend to be too buoyant in stating the case for big data and open data. Different contexts at play need to be put into consideration in making the case for the potential and real impact of these initiatives.

Bernard Sabiti is a Senior Programme Officer at Development Research and Training and also works part time at Development Initiatives‘ Kampala Office as a Partnerships manager and Engagement Advisor

bernardsabiti@gmail.com

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