Tomorrow I am starting a new job at the University of Amsterdam as a Marie Curie postdoctoral fellow in Development Studies. I’ll be continuing and expanding the line of research that I’ve become most interested in during my work at the Oxford Internet Institute, looking at the role of big data in Development. I use the capital D to distinguish ‘Development’ as a field (international policy and financial interventions in low- and middle-income countries) from ‘development’ as a process of change and evolution, which is constantly occurring in all countries. The idea of Development is to influence change in a positive direction – something which is much more complicated than it sounds to the uninitiated. The idea of Development has been responsible for some huge mistakes, particularly when it’s used synonymously with neoliberalism and linear thinking about how everyone should use the same policies, technologies and political systems. It’s hard to think of any iniquity in a low-income country that hasn’t been called Development at some point, from enslaving people and using their natural resources to kidnapping their children so they could be taught to behave like Europeans. On this basis, many have argued that ‘developing’ countries would be better off without having to Develop.
Arguably, however, Development often does things which are actually in line with positive change and evolution. Some welfare programs have translated fairly well from richer to poorer countries, as have many ideas in the sphere of health and economics. Bits of the UN such as UNICEF do remarkable work that respects local life while providing protection to the poorest and most vulnerable in situations where their own governments are not able to help. There is an honourable tradition of participatory development which is less about interventions than about providing the kinds of education that will enable people to solve local problems locally. Importantly, development without the capital ‘D’ is often done locally, rather than at arm’s length by policymakers, and can be quite cheap.
And now into this fray comes Big Data. As I’ve written elsewhere in this blog, people all over the world are emitting data about themselves at an ever-increasing rate, through their phones, their internet use, their connections with their government, their use of healthcare, banks, microfinance, and all sorts of other activities. There is a lot of debate about how this data can be used in Development, mainly because of a dearth of public statistics about the world’s lower-income countries. On the one hand this might be a good thing because it makes local problems, poverty and abuses harder to conceal, and enables intervention where things are going wrong. On the other hand, it may enable the advocates of Development to work even more at arm’s length instead of having to actually connect with people and understand the background to their problems.
The way that lower-income countries are dealing with their emission of big data is also important – some are passing data protection laws, but for them to be enforceable it takes a strong civil society to lobby against the misuse of data. Without careful management, the hoarding and abuse of personal data may only reinforce and highlight injustice just as it does in higher-income countries. So what kind of digital data protection frameworks are needed to protect the poorest people? What should research ethics look like with regard to personal digital data from low-income places? And how should the companies that provide services and collect data behave in places where their home regulations don’t apply?
I am going to be researching these questions over the next two years. If you have ideas or are interested in similar issues, please get in touch, as I would welcome input.