Is Data the New Oil? Examining the Promise of Data for Development


The promise of measuring everything and everyone with the help of digital technologies has triggered the interest of the development community as well as governments across the Global South. But in countries like Kenya, the excessive collection or personal data creates risks of monetary and political exploitation, not to mention compounding existing discrimination, without improving the delivery of aid and public services.

Skyline of Nairobi, Kenya

In 2019 the Nubian community of Kenya took the government to court alleging that the proposed national digital identity system – the Huduma Number – inherently violated their rights to privacy, non-discrimination and other key protections under the constitution. The Nubians, descendants of Sudanese soldiers who fought on the side of the British during Kenya’s independence war, have routinely and systematically been denied access to identity documents. Nubian analyst Kedolwa Waziri put it summarily, “we are not even allowed to die,” because if Nubians cannot get IDs they cannot get death certificates, for example.

For the Nubian community, the Huduma Number represents little more than a cosmetic change to Kenya’s exclusionary ID systems: engendering the same inequalities and exclusions that the previous ID system did, without challenging its problematic rationale. Kenya’s Nubians have made a demand to be seen as equal citizens and to stop the government using identity as a basis for denying them basic entitlements. But the government has declined to address that complex question, instead focusing on the shortest path to turning all their citizens into a profit point: collecting data that it refuses to guarantee will not be used for commercial purposes. Notably, when Mr. Jerome Ochieng, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry for Information and Communications Technology was called to testify at the court hearing in the Nubian case, he was asked if the data collected in the Huduma Number exercise would solely be used for identity purposes, to which he replied: “data is the new oil.”

Is data the new oil?

“Data is the new oil” has become the catchphrase of our times. Governments love to say it. Organizations love to hear it. The idea is simple. Tech companies are the new oil companies, mining data as a resource (and contrary to oil, this resource appears to be endless). This applies to data about the weather, about the performance of a machine, but also to data about people.

The promise of measuring everything and everyone with the help of digital technologies has triggered the interest of the development community as well as governments across the Global South. With strategic investments and support from relevant organizations and institutions, so the assumption goes, data could do for developing countries what oil did for the Gulf and other regions in the 1960s and 1970s – a rapid economic expansion that will allegedly deliver improvements in the material conditions of poor countries. The second assumption is that the unprecedented possibilities of data collection and processing will facilitate the assessment of public needs and the delivery of aid or public services.

But beyond the catchy cadence of the phrase, there are major problems with this approach: It leads to monetary and political exploitation of personal data, and it can solidify and even exacerbate discrimination of vulnerable groups and individuals. Moreover, it has done nothing to improve service delivery or aid development, and massive data collection endangers sustainable development.

Human beings are more than data points

The use of the catchphrase “data is the new oil” in the Kenyan official’s statement in a key legal proceeding hints at the complications that arise when we flatten out our identities and our experiences as human beings to data points. “Data is the new oil” is not a promise for development. It is a promise for exploitation. The concept of data as oil is antithetical to the idea of being human. Everything is data, but not every piece of data should be monetized. “Data is the new oil” implies that only the data points that can be monetized are valuable, at the expense of the identities that a person might use to define themselves.

Human beings generate massive volumes of data simply by virtue of existing, and these data points can then be turned into money. When identification data is turned into a commercial opportunity, our identities are essentially being turned into free and compulsory labor and we cannot opt out. We do not choose our fingerprints, iris scans, or even location information – even our nationalities are accidents of birth. This is why censuses are anonymous. We give the state exactly what it needs for governance and planning purposes and not a single ounce more, and certainly not the essence of who we are. Under the Huduma Number system, this is different. The data collected is not anonymous and in aggregate, but highly specific to each individual, amplifying the scope for misuse and abuse.

ID systems are premised on the idea that they collect only the information about us that is invariable. But in doing so, they imply that these selected data points are all that matters. How a state classifies gender is a statement on the politics of gender expression in that state. Collecting data on ethnic identity suggests that ethnicity is something that is crucial to our relationship with the state. In Kenya, the proposed new ID system will do nothing to address the systemic discriminations inherent its existing ID system. Instead, it would compound these issues by adding the digital to an already highly problematic political dynamic.

The myth of fingerprints

Apart from exacerbating systemic discrimination, the presumptions underlying biometric systems can lead to other forms of exclusion of the most vulnerable. Biometrics place a disproportionate emphasis on our fingerprints, for example. Yet women who lift hot pots straight from the fire might burn theirs off, farmers who work the land twelve hours a day might have them rubbed off with time. India’s biometric ID system Aadhar has struggled to collect the data of tens of thousands of rural people whose lifestyles do not correspond to the decontextualised myths of biometrics: people with no fingerprints to provide, and eyes so riddled with cataracts that iris scans are worthless.

More importantly, biometric ID systems shift the power dynamic between the state and the citizen towards the state. Vast data collection gives states tremendous powers of surveillance and public control, but without the possibility of opting out, whereas it is not clear what the citizen gets in return. The state promises good governance, but, to paraphrase Kenyan analyst Nanjira Sambuli, what makes us think that a government that has refused to build new schools or hospitals for 60 years is suddenly going to start building schools and hospitals because they know where the person with a particular set of fingerprints lives?

Measuring becomes alternative to action

“Data is the new oil” provides states with a language for governance that absolves them of other important political responsibilities. When mining for this new oil, what resources like time and interest within the development space are shifted towards collection, processing and storing data? What is not getting done? What governance priorities are being displaced? In Kenya, the Huduma Number initiative came at the crest of a tumultuous period in the country. Between 2016 and 2018 the country suffered a crippling drought that saw prices of staples like maize (corn) almost treble. The 2017 election was chaotic, culminating in the annulment of the first result and a broadly shunned second election that ushered in a government with a serious legitimacy deficit. A new school curriculum was rushed through, poorly reviewed and has been widely panned as stultifying and ultimately harmful to the children taking it.

Yet, the same government overseeing these crises spent an estimated US $6 million on data collection for the new ID system. Datafication arguably allows governments and agencies to look like they are doing something when in fact they are doing very little. “Data is the new oil” as an approach to governance is fundamentally a short cut. Instead of doing the hard and boring work of development and social justice, providing clean water and quality education, governments and non-governmental organizations get to produce charts and graphs that merely reify what the public already knows – that we are struggling to provide for the poorest of the poor.

The environmental costs of data collection

Finally, the illusion that data as a resource is somehow less costly or damaging than oil is just that, an illusion. Generating data may be a passive product of existing, but collecting and synthesizing it in large servers, or sending it around the world for extra-territorial processing consumes energy and raw materials. Our ever-increasing demand for computing power is part of the broader environmental crisis as the raw materials that are needed for that – coltan, coal, plastics – are neither cheap nor free. Just as fossil fuels wreak havoc on the natural environment so too does an open-ended hunger for datafication drive rapid consumption of natural resources.

Data is inevitable, and data collection can be a tremendously useful exercise for mapping, planning and state building. But it is important not to indulge in unchecked delusions about how datafication intersects with the reality of human experience. Just as oil has brought both significant change and significant damage, so too does the uncritical consumption of myths about data contain dangerous propositions.

In a development context, “data is the new oil” is a fundamental distortion of what it means to exist, and of the relationship between a citizen and their state. We are more than the data we produce, and responsible development must recognize that complexity instead of seeking out shortcuts around it.