Debate: How can developing countries balance the rewards and risks of big data?

Bellagio Online debate 3
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Bellagio Online debate 3


Every day, around 4 billion people – over half the world’s population – go online and create billions of bytes of data. The growing availability of cheap smartphones means over half these people do so via mobile phones. Across Africa, for example, the number of internet users is increasing 20 per cent each year. In countries where banking, telecommunications, and transport infrastructure is weak – as in many developing countries – mobile phone-based services are plugging these gaps, leaving a tsunami of data in their wake.

The data explosion in the global South has triggered excited discussions about ‘big data for development’. Analysts wax lyrical about the internet of things or governments using data generated by internet searches, GPS, social media and other channels to transform development policy and funding, making it more targeted, efficient and fair. Big data can also be used to track human rights violations or map violence in conflict-prone areas.
But the ever-growing mountain of data also poses massive problems. Many countries in the global North as well as South lack the technology, infrastructure or human capacity to analyse and apply data to policy. Without this, they risk missing the opportunities big data enables, or worse still, using it badly. The result can be botched or skewed policies that in no way reflect or serve the people they were designed to help.
There are other dangers. Data, the internet and surveillance technology can be used to infringe human rights, spy on populations, control access to services, and worse. In authoritarian regimes, the capacity of governments to abuse their populations through data collection grows ever more sophisticated.
On Tuesday 20 November, SciDev.Net hosted the third of four online debates, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, exploring key issues in science for development. Experts from around the world will discuss what big data means for development, and how poorer countries can balance the rewards and risks of big data.

The panellists

Davis Adieno, regional director for Africa, Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, Kenya (@DavisAdieno)
Davis works with governments, regional bodies, non-state actors, private sector and other organisations, through national data roadmap processes to harness the data revolution. He helps these organisations develop strategies for investments and innovations in data to achieve the SDGs and other development priorities. Davis has extensive experience in building data ecosystems, citizen engagement, and policy spaces. Previously he worked for CIVICUS World Alliance as senior advisor and as senior manager at Development Initiatives.

Justin Arenstein, founder and CEO, Code for Africa (@justinarenstein)
Justin Arenstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and digital democracy strategist, who leads Code for Africa: the continent's largest federation of civic technology and open data labs, as well as the $1m innovateAFRICA.fund incubator that seed-funds data-driven projects.

Maria De-Arteaga, researcher, Carnegie Mellon University, US/Colombia
Maria is a joint PhD candidate in Machine Learning and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. She is passionate about understanding the roadblocks that prevent the effective use of machine learning to advance global development, and conducting machine learning research to tackle these challenges. Currently, her main focus is algorithmic fairness in the context of decision support systems. She is a co-founder and co-organiser of the Workshop on Machine Learning for the Developing World (ML4D), held at NIPS — the premiere machine learning conference — in 2017 and 2018. Her research on discovery of anomalous patterns of sexual violence in El Salvador was awarded the Innovation Award on Data Science at Data for Policy, 2016. She is the recipient of a Microsoft Research Dissertation Grant, 2018.

Tariq Khokhar, managing director and senior data scientist, The Rockefeller Foundation, US (@tkb)
Tariq steers the work to build the Rockefeller Foundation’s technological capabilities and innovation projects. He joined the Foundation in September, after serving as senior data scientist and global data editor at the World Bank. Here he established the World Bank’s Data Innovation Fund, which attracted more than 1,000 applicants and led to over US$7 million of investment in early-stage and scale-up projects to improve the way data are produced, managed, and financed for low-and-middle-income countries. Prior to this, Tariq developed technical architecture and data standards for the International Aid Transparency Initiative, and co-founded Aptivate, a digital agency which works across the mobile banking, telecommunications, education, and healthcare sectors. He is a graduate of the University of Cambridge.

Dr Emmanuel Letouzé, director and co-founder, Data-Pop Alliance, US (@ManuLetouze)
Data-Pop Alliance is a global coalition on Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and development created in 2013. Emmanuel is also a co-founder and program director of the Open Algorithms (OPAL) project and a visiting scholar at MIT Media Lab. In 2011, he wrote UN Global Pulse's White Paper "Big Data for Development”, and since then has focused on new data’s applications and implications for governance, poverty, inequality and resilience, as well as ethics and privacy. He worked for UNDP in 2006-2009 and in Vietnam for the French Ministry of Finance in 2000-2004. He holds a BA in Political Science and an MA in Economic Demography from Sciences Po Paris, an MA in International Affairs-Economic Development from Columbia University, where he was a Fulbright Fellow, and a PhD in Demography from the University of California, Berkeley. He is also a political cartoonist.

Mohamed Maher, digital transformation and innovation consultant, Egypt

Jacqueline Mutsiitwa, executive director, Financial Sector Deepening Uganda; founder, Hoja Law Group (@nubiancounsel)
Jacqueline is executive director of FSD Uganda, a not-for-profit company that promotes greater access to financial services, and founder and managing partner of Hoja Law Group. She is also a data champion for Accur8Africa, a platform supporting the accuracy of data in Africa. Previously Jacqueline worked at the Eastern and Southern African Trade and Development Bank (PTA Bank), the WTO and for the Rwandan government. She is a member of the Monetary Policy Advisory Committee, the Bank of Zambia board, and the board of Crisis Action, an international non-profit protecting civilians from armed conflict. She was a Young Global Leader 2011 (World Economic Forum), an Archbishop Desmond Tutu Fellow 2011, the 2012 Mo Ibrahim Foundation Leadership Fellow, and a 2014 New Voices Fellow. Jacqueline holds a BA from Davidson College and a Juris Doctor from the University of Melbourne.

Bright Simons, president, mPedigree network, Ghana (@BBSimons)
Bright Simons is the president of mPedigree, a social enterprise working on three continents using innovative technologies to secure communities from the harmful effects of counterfeiting. He is honorary director of development research at IMANI, a TED and Ashoka fellow and consulted on innovation strategy by international organisations such as the World Bank, UNECA, USAID, and the Commonwealth. In 2016, Fortune Magazine named Bright in their 50 World’s Greatest Leaders.


Imogen Mathers, producer at SciDev.Net

Debate questions

1.    What are the most interesting and effective ways that developing countries and international aid organisations are – or could be – using big data to improve lives?
2.    How important is it to consider local context, culture and digital practices when designing systems for analysing big data, and where have you seen this being done well?
3.    Using big data demands cooperation between governments and the private sector – often companies based elsewhere and in richer countries. What kind of issues might arise and how can these be managed?
4.    What other challenges need to be overcome to unlock the better use of big data?
5.    What risks do you see today and foresee in the future in how big data is used/misused?
6.    What effect can political turmoil or conflict have on data security and the protection of citizens?

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