Digital Self-Empowerment, not Digital Colonialism

Conference Report

The data revolution can support inclusive development and sustainable growth in the Global South as long as national policies and global rules protect vulnerable citizens and societies from abuse by technology companies and authoritarian governments.

Person texting in front of crowd

In the best-case scenario, more and better-quality data can usher in a period of prosperity in the Global South. The data-driven economy can foster new business models and contribute to growth. At the same time, data can empower citizens to hold governments accountable, disrupting the combination of market failure and government failure that has plagued low-income countries around the world. According to Shanta Devarajan, who was a senior development economist at the World Bank and now teaches at Georgetown University, the current data revolution could be “the biggest innovation in development that we have had, ever.”

Yet without sufficient safeguards, the extraction of personal data by companies or governments can make the vulnerable even more vulnerable. Claire Melamed, Chief Executive Officer of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, warned that authoritarian governments could use personal data to identify and oppress their critics. “It is great for people if they can use an app to discover when the bus is coming, but this same app also reveals their location. So if the government gets a hold of that data and sends a police car to take you away, not so great.”

Devarajan and Melamed spoke at the conference on “Data as a Development Issue” before an audience of experts in development, trade and the data economy from government and international organizations, civil society and the private sector. The one-day event on January 31, 2020 was hosted at the George Washington University and co-organized by GW’s Digital Trade & Data Governance Hub, the Center for Global Development and the Heinrich Boell Foundation, Washington, DC.

Combining public and private data

Development policy relies on the use of data for measuring poverty or inequality as well as for evaluating the effectiveness of measures taken to address these problems. Digital technologies have generated new ways of capturing, sharing and using data to promote development. At the conference, Vivien Foster, Chief Economist for the World Bank’s Infrastructure Vice-Presidency, gave a preview of the World Bank Group’s 2021 World Development Report, which will focus on “Data for Development.” The authors plan to address the role the data-driven economy can play to improve development outcomes in low-and middle-income countries.

Public data for statistical measurement is only part of the equation. For policymakers, more granular and instantly available private data can be a game changer. With the emergence of data-driven business models, corporations accumulate an increasing amount of personal data such as health information, commercial data, location data or IoT device data. At the conference, Stefaan Verhulst, co-founder of The Governance Lab at New York University, introduced his model of a public-private partnership between companies and the state. The idea is that companies could give the government or researchers access to data that could help improve government services and foster public innovation.

With data sharing comes responsibility. How can we make sure that data collection and processing by companies and governments is in the public interest? This question has particular urgency in the developing world – but not just there. “Vulnerable people have the most to gain but also the most to lose in this data-driven economy if we don’t think hard about rights and about trust,” stated Claire Melamed in her keynote speech at the conference.

Lack of regulation and risk of exploitation

“We generate data just by virtue of our existence,” said Nanjala Nyabola, a writer and digital rights activist from Kenya, in an interview after the conference. “We need to have the right as individuals to determine how the data is used.” Kenya is a prime example of a country that rushed to adopt technological innovations in the absence of sufficient regulatory boundaries for the collection, transfer and use of data. The Kenyan government has introduced a controversial digital identity system (see Nyabola’s commentary here), which promised more efficient government services but ended up exacerbating ethnic discrimination. The British data analysis firm Cambridge Analytica, which was accused of abusing Facebook data to influence US voters in 2016, was reportedly also engaged in voter manipulation in the Kenyan election of 2017.

At the conference, Nyabola warned that the way that governments and companies turned individuals’ data into a commodity, was leading to what she calls “digital colonialism” – a system, in which citizens are not empowered by technology but suppressed and exploited. Many discussions at the meeting revolved around putting in place the right safeguards and governance to ensure the responsible use of data.

On a technical level, data scientist Stefaan Verhulst proposed the role of “data stewards” who should audit public-private data sharing and conduct risk assessments. On a societal level, Claire Melamed called for a “new social contract” between governments and the people they govern to ensure that digital innovation is built around the ethical and transparent use of data. On a global level, conference participants discussed differing approaches to cross-border data flows – while some countries include digital products in bilateral or multilateral trade agreements, others erect barriers for data exports (data localization).

Another topic was the need for regulations to protect personal data or prevent bias in algorithmic decision-making. It was noted that the world’s leading technological power, the United States, had no comprehensive privacy legislation. At the same time, many countries in the developing world were modeling such laws on the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), but were struggling with the implementation.

(More) Data for (Better) Measurement?

In the end, the experts sought to chart a middle path between enthusiasm for the data economy and the realization of its limits. In a video interview on the sidelines of the conference, the World Bank’s Vivien Foster warned that populations with low (digital) literacy rates, low purchasing power and possibly weak governance structures were more likely to miss out on the benefits of the data-driven economy, while their needs were less likely to be registered in data collection efforts. “Before we get really excited about data for development we have to ask, what does it mean for a poor subsistence farmer in Nigeria, operating in a barter economy - does data really bring promise? Can data help poor people who might not even leave their own data trail to be analyzed and processed for policy responses?”

There was agreement that data collection should not be an end in itself. Because even if the Nigerian farmer left a data trail, would the information gleaned from it actually lead to better measurements and from there to more targeted action? Claire Melamed sounded a note of caution in her speech: “Too often we become enamored with the technical solutions that data can provide. We need to be able to pause and consider whether a data driven-solution is truly best in a given situation.”