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Digital Platforms as Institutions

platforms-as-institutionsHow should we understand digital platforms from an institutional perspective?

The paper, “Digital Platforms and Institutional Voids in Developing Countries”, suggests a four-layer model of institutional forms, and illustrates this using ride-hailing platforms as an example.

Layer 1: Digital Institutions.  Platforms themselves are institutions into which digitised routines and rules have been designed based on the digital affordances of the platform. Ride-hailing examples include algorithmic decision-making such as driver—customer matching, or price setting.

Layer 2: Digitally-Enabled Institutions.  Some institutional functions rely on digitised routines and rules within the platform but involve human intermediation.  Ride-hailing examples include checks on driver credentials for market entry, or adjudication of deactivation decisions.

Layer 3: Business Model Institutions.  These are broader rules and routines determined by the platform company as part of its business model, which govern participation in the platform but which exist outwith the digital platform.  Ride-hailing examples include control over vehicle entry into the market, determination of driver employment status, or setting the balance of supply and demand.

Layer 4: Stakeholder-Relation Institutions.  These are the connections or disconnections to other market or domain institutions.  Ride-hailing examples include relations to external stakeholders such as government agencies and trade unions.

Analysis of field evidence from Colombia and South Africa suggests that the first two types of institution are associated with the filling of prior institutional voids, and with market improvements.  The latter two institutional forms are more related to the maintenance, expansion or creation of institutional voids, and to market inequalities.

We look forward to further work applying and revising this institutional model of platforms.

How Platforms Change Markets: The Lens of “Institutional Voids”

Void

Do digital platforms change markets for better or worse?

To help understand this, we used the lens of institutional voids in the World Development paper, “Digital Platforms and Institutional Voids in Developing Countries”.  This argues that markets don’t work properly because they have institutional shortcomings or voids: inadequate provision of information, limited matching of buyers and sellers, poor management of transactions, ineffective market regulation, etc.

A promise of digital platforms is that they will fill these voids and change markets for the good.  We investigated this using evidence from Colombia and from the South Africa Fairwork project on taxi markets before and after the advent of three e-hailing platforms: Bolt, EasyTaxi and Uber.

The “before” picture was far from perfect.  Institutional voids led to markets with problems including high costs, crime, insecurity, opportunism, informality and discrimination.  As predicted, the gig economy platforms filled some of the institutional voids that led to this profile.  This reduced costs and risks for both drivers and passengers, improved vehicle and service quality, and enabled employment for those excluded from the traditional market.

Yet, in contrast to past research on business and institutional voids in the global South, we found that void-filling is not all that platforms companies do.  They also maintain some voids, such as lack of information and lack of formal employment status for drivers.  They expand some voids, such as lack of information available to government.  And they create some voids by circumventing the regulatory roles performed by government agencies and driver collective bodies.

The core impact of these additional strategies is to increase the relative power of the platform company vis-à-vis other market stakeholders and to make the market much more unequal.  Going far beyond the typical role of business, platform companies have internalised the institutions for the entire gamut of market functions; collapsing an entire organisational field into themselves.  The previously-distributed and -dissipated institutional power that the platform companies have concentrated into themselves is thus unprecedented, particularly given the duopolistic nature of the markets that are often created.

Filling institutional voids is not wholly beneficial – our research also identified problems caused by the digitalisations and formalisations that platforms bring.  But our key recommendation is a need to identify and address the voids that these companies retain or make.  Actions needed include information provision to address customer–driver asymmetries; revitalised state control over market supply–demand imbalance; new legislation to address lack of employment rights for workers; and more effective worker collectivisation.

Our research represents a novel insight into the relation between platforms, institutions and markets, and we look forward to further work applying these ideas to other sectors and contexts.

Digital Platforms as Development Infrastructure

20 April 2021 1 comment
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I’m going to argue here that digital platforms should be understood as development infrastructure[1].

In recent years, there’s been a renewed emphasis on the value and role of infrastructure in international development[2].  Official development assistance for infrastructure has therefore risen but there remains a significant infrastructure financing gap[3].

It may be something of an exaggeration to say, as Paul Collier does, that “the west’s aid agencies ‘pulled out of infrastructure long ago, and started financing social stuff instead. That’s important, but there’s a need to get back to financing the basic [physical and organisational] infrastructure’ because ‘without it countries can’t develop’”[4].  However, while western agencies are still funding infrastructure, it is certainly true that China particularly has stepped in to try to fill the gap left by lack of western funding for development infrastructure; especially via its Belt-and-Road initiative[5].  This gap-filling includes digital infrastructure.

When we think of digital and infrastructure, the focus has been on telecommunications: fibre-optic cabling, mobile networks and the like.  But digital platforms should also be seen as infrastructure.  As development processes digitise and dematerialise, platforms become the “infra-structure” for society: lying beneath and increasingly forming the foundation and site for economic, social and political activity.

Platforms store development assets, just like a grain silo.  Platforms transport development assets, just like a road or railway.  Platforms import and export development assets, just like a port.  Platforms enable transactions of development assets, just like a marketplace.

Digital platforms thus perform the developmental functions not just of physical but also of institutional infrastructure.  For example, as marketplaces, they combine within themselves the institutional infrastructure functions of participant aggregation and certification, transaction facilitation, payment and regulation[6].

The Chinese state has recognised this.  Its Digital Silk Road initiative funds traditional digital infrastructure but it also encompasses support for the spread of Chinese digital platforms to low- and middle-income economies of the global South[7].  These platforms are then becoming a key part of national economic infrastructure in these countries[8]. Will western governments recognise platforms’ infrastructural importance to development?  And, if so, how should and will they respond?


[1] Graphic: https://e.huawei.com/en/publications/global/ict_insights/201810161444/analysts/201906101000

[2] Bhattacharya, A., Romani, M. & Stern, N. (2012) Infrastructure for Development: Meeting the Challenge, London School of Economics; Donaubauer, J., Meyer, B., & Nunnenkamp, P. (2016) Aid, infrastructure, and FDIWorld Development78, 230-245; DFID (2020) International Development Infrastructure Commission Recommendations Report, Department for International Development, UK

[3] UNCTAD (2020) Official international assistance plays a key role in financing for sustainable development, SDG Pulse

[4] Hellowell, M. & Wakdok, S. (2021) Disaster relief, Prospect, March, 48-51

[5] Huang, Y. (2016) Understanding China’s Belt & Road initiativeChina Economic Review40, 314-321.

[6] Heeks, R., Eskelund, K., Gomez-Morantes, J. E., Malik, F., & Nicholson, B. (2020) Digital Labour Platforms in the Global South: Filling or Creating Institutional Voids?, Working Paper no.86, Centre for Digital Development, University of Manchester, UK

[7] Bora, L. Y. (2020) Challenge and perspective for Digital Silk RoadCogent Business & Management7(1), 1804180; Choudary, S.P. (2020) China’s country-as-platform strategy for global influence, TechStream, 19 Nov

[8] Keane, M., & Yu, H. (2019) A digital empire in the making: China’s outbound digital platformsInternational Journal of Communication13, 4624-4641.

Latest Digital Development Outputs (Data, Humanitarianism, Labour, Platforms) from CDD, Manchester

Recent outputs – on Data-for-Development; Digital Humanitarianism; Digital Labour; Digital Platforms – from Centre for Digital Development researchers, University of Manchester:

DATA-FOR-DEVELOPMENT

The Rise of the Data Economy and Policy Strategies for Digital Development” (open access) by Shamel Azmeh, Christopher Foster & Ahmad Abd Rabuh, expands on policy debates around digital development.  It examines the emergence of the data economy and potentials of strategic policy and/or industrial policy in the global South.  Based on a global policy analysis, it identifies four key “policy pathways” by which countries can look to strategically capture value in the data economy.

DIGITAL HUMANITARIANISM

Digital Innovation by Displaced Populations: A Critical Realist Study of Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh” by Faheem Hussain, P.J. Wall & Richard Heeks, uses a critical realist approach to understand the three mechanisms the underpin digital innovation by Rohingya refugees.

Lessons On The Digital World From The Charity Sector: The Corporate World Has A Lot To Learn” (open access) by Brian Nicholson, Lisa Kidston, Cris Sachikoyne & Dane Anderton, argues that African charitable organisations and those like the national Citizens Advice in England and Wales are leading the way when it comes to demonstrating exemplary digital leadership.

DIGITAL LABOUR AND DEVELOPMENT

Competing Institutional Logics in Impact Sourcing” by Fareesa Malik & Brian Nicholson, draws on the concepts of institutional logics to  present a case study of a USA-based IT outsourcing vendor “AlphaCorp” practising impact sourcing in a Pakistan subsidiary. The findings show that in cases where actors are located in diverse institutional contexts, competing interests determine the respective priority given to the welfare and market logics.

Digital Labour Platforms in Pakistan: Institutional Voids and Solidarity Networks” by Fareesa Malik, Richard Heeks, Silvia Masiero & Brian Nicholson, conceptualises the theoretical link between labour platforms and socio-economic development drawing on the notion of institutional voids and empirical fieldwork in Pakistan.

Risks and Risk-Mitigation Strategies of Gig Economy Workers in the Global South” by Tatenda Mpofu, Pitso Tsibolane, Richard Heeks & Jean-Paul Van Belle, analyses three strategies (platform-, driver- and driver group-led) that seek to mitigate the risks of ride-hailing work in Cape Town.

The Fairwork Foundation: Strategies for Improving Platform Work in a Global Context” (open access) by Mark Graham, Jamie Woodcock, Richard Heeks, Paul Mungai, Jean-Paul Van Belle, Darcy du Toit, Sandra Fredman, Abigail Osiki, Anri van der Spuy & Six M. Silberman, introduces the work of the Fairwork Foundation to rank and compare gig work platforms against a set of five decent work principles.

DIGITAL PLATFORMS AND DEVELOPMENT

Analysing Urban Platforms and Inequality Through a ‘Platform Justice’ Lens” by Richard Heeks & Satyarupa Shekhar, introduces a model of “platform justice” through which to analyse the impact of urban digital platforms.

Competing Logics: Towards a Theory of Digital Platforms for Socio-economic Development” by Silvia Masiero & Brian Nicholson, seeks to contribute to the nascent literature on platforms in development, unpacking a human-centred development logic as an alternative to the market logic that animates most of the platforms discourse and relying on it to lay the foundations for an emerging theory of platforms for development.

Digital Platforms, Surveillance and Processes of Demoralization” by Sung Chai, Brian Nicholson, Robert Scapens & Chunlei Yang, conceptualises the theoretical link between platforms and morality drawing on an interpretive study of a hotel in Vietnam to examine surveillance.

Delivering Urban Data Justice for “Smart Cities 2.0”

11 February 2021 Leave a comment

What new institutions are needed to ensure smart cities are also data-just cities?

Smart City 1.0 “is primarily focused on diffusing smart technologies for corporate and economic interests”.  Smart City 2.0 is “a decentralised, people-centric approach where smart technologies are employed as tools to tackle social problems, address resident needs and foster collaborative participation”.[1]

Given their people-centrism, a foundation for Smart Cities 2.0 must therefore be delivery of urban data justice: fairness in the way people are made visible, represented and treated as a result of the production of urban digital data.[2]

We already know the constituent parts of urban data justice, as shown in the figure below.[3]

But a key argument of this model is that data justice is significantly shaped by urban social structures.  If those structures are unjust then data practices and outcomes will likely be unjust.  How, then, do we create urban social structures more likely to deliver the data justice that is part of Smart City 2.0?

Setting aside more radical restructuring of the urban polity, three more incremental forms can play a role:

1. Living Labs

“Living labs employ a user-focused design environment, a strategy of co-creation, and, increasingly, an institutionalized space wherein citizens, administrators, entrepreneurs and academics come together to develop smartness into concrete applications. They help identify and join localized expertise, real-life testing and prototyping with strategic networking of resources to address challenges that cannot be solved by single cities or departments.”[4]  Located at the upstream end of the innovation cycle, living labs are well-placed to come up with new, just ways of applying urban data.[5]

2. Urban Data Trusts

Data trusts are “a legal structure that provides independent stewardship of data … an approach to looking after and making decisions about data in a similar way that trusts have been used to look after and make decisions about other forms of asset in the past, such as land trusts that steward land on behalf of local communities.”[6]  These can form an institutional superstructure to ensure justice in the ownership, sharing and use of data; particularly data gathered about urban citizens.[7]

3. Community Data Intermediaries

Community data intermediaries are “organizations that gather data relevant for neighborhood-level analysis and make the information available to community groups and local institutions”.  Alongside their key role in gathering data – for example via community mapping – CDIs may also have features of both living labs (innovating application of that data) and data trusts (acting as stewards of the data for communities).[8]

The devil here will be in the detail: how exactly are these entities structured and run?  Simply attaching a label to an organisation does not make it just, with critiques in circulation of living labs[9], urban data trusts[10], and community data intermediaries[11].  Nonetheless, it is these types of urban institutional innovation that will underlie delivery of data justice in Smart Cities 2.0.  I look forward to further examples of these and similar innovations.

 

[1] Trencher, G. (2019) Towards the smart city 2.0: empirical evidence of using smartness as a tool for tackling social challenges, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 142, 117-128

[2] Adapted slightly from Taylor, L. (2017) What is data justice? The case for connecting digital rights and freedoms globally, Big Data & Society, 4(2), 2053951717736335

[3] Heeks, R. & Shekhar, S. (2019) Datafication, development and marginalised urban communities: An applied data justice framework, Information, Communication & Society, 22(7), 992-1011

[4] Baykurt, B. (2020) Are “smart” cities living up to the hype?, University of Massachusetts Amherst News, 1 May

[5] For a data justice perspective on the activities of one Living Lab in Kathmandu plus related organisations, see: Mulder, F. (2020) Humanitarian data justice: A structural data justice lens on civic technologies in post‐earthquake Nepal, Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 28(4), 432-445

[6] Hardinges, J. (2020) Data trusts in 2020, Open Data Institute, 17 Mar

[7] For more on urban civic data trusts, see: Kariotis, T. (2020) Civic Data Trusts, Melbourne School of Government, University of Melbourne, Australia

[8] For a guide on creating community data intermedaries and examples, see: Hendey, L., Cowan, J., Kingsley, G.T. & Pettit, K.L. (2016) NNIP’s Guide to Starting a Local Data Intermediary, NNIP, Washington, DC

[9] Taylor, L. (2020) Exploitation as innovation: research ethics and the governance of experimentation in the urban living lab. Regional Studies, advance online publication.

[10] Artyushina, A. (2020) Is civic data governance the key to democratic smart cities? The role of the urban data trust in Sidewalk Toronto, Telematics and Informatics, 55, 101456

[11] Heeks, R. & Shekhar, S. (2019) Datafication, development and marginalised urban communities: An applied data justice framework, Information, Communication & Society, 22(7), 992-1011

Revisiting “Leapfrogging” in a Platformised World

11 January 2021 Leave a comment

What difference do digital platforms make to the long-standing argument about “leapfrogging” of development by developing countries?[1]

The idea that latecomer nations could accelerate their passage through development stages via use of new technology has been around for decades[2].  It was no surprise, then, that leapfrogging played at least some part in turn-of-the-century cheerleading for the role that ICTs could play in development[3].  And statistics bore out the concrete example of global South countries jumping fairly quickly to mobile phone-based telecommunications infrastructure during the 2000s and 2010s, having invested much less in relative terms in the previous generation of landline infrastructure than countries in the global North[4].

The flaw in much of the simplistic thinking about technology and leapfrogging is that technology never acts alone in development; it always forms part of a socio-technical system[5].  Lower-income countries might be able to move more quickly than higher-income countries to a more-recent generation of technology.  But they could not repeat the same trick with the social part of their systems.

One way of understanding why the “social part of their systems” constrained development was to identify institutional shortcomings – often called “institutional voids” – that particularly meant developing country markets could be inefficient, ineffective, incomplete and/or inequitable.  While ICTs always had institutional effects, these were limited, with lack of institutional change acting as the brake that prevented economic leapfrogging.

In the past few years, though, this picture has changed with the arrival of digital platforms as an important force in development.  Digital platforms much more readily fill institutional voids than prior ICT-based systems.  They not only provide cheaper and better information, they form the entire institutional infrastructure for new markets; not just the transactional infrastructure but the regulatory infrastructure as well[6].

So digital platforms, being much more complete socio-technical systems than earlier ICTs, can offer developing countries a route for leapfrogging.  Yes, local context matters and platform implementation can be a bumpy road so a platform is not quite “market in a box”.  But, for example, e-hailing platforms have helped dozens of Southern cities quickly improve taxi markets that were beset by insecurity, high costs, long wait times, etc – problems that had existed for years without resolution.

But if leapfrogging, at least in terms of some markets, is now more feasible; exactly what are developing countries leapfrogging to?  The new platform-based markets are more efficient, safer, with less opportunistic behaviour.  But they are also more unequal and less democratic as the platform becomes marketplace, manager, adjudicator, enforcer and regulator all rolled into one; eliminating roles for government, unions, and other stakeholders[7].

Platforms may be offering an opportunity for leapfrogging but they come with a caveat: be careful where you leap.


[1] With acknowledgements to Anne Njathi for asking the questions about leapfrogging that led to this post.

[2] See e.g. Goldschmidt, A. (1962) Technology in emerging countries. Technology and Culture, 3(4), 581-600.

[3] See e.g. World Bank (1998) World Development Report, World Bank, Washington, DC; InfoDev (2000) The Networking Revolution: Opportunities and Challenges for Developing Countries, World Bank, Washington, DC; Steinmueller, W. E. (2001) ICTs and the possibilities for leapfrogging by developing countries. International Labour Review, 140, 193.

[4] UNCTAD (2018) Leapfrogging: Look Before You Leap, UNCTAD, Geneva.

[5] See e.g. Wade, R.H. (2002) ‘Bridging the digital divide: new route to development or new form of dependency?’, Global Governance, 8, 443-466; Alzouma, G. (2005) Myths of digital technology in Africa: Leapfrogging development?. Global Media and Communication, 1(3), 339-356; Kenny, C. (2006) Overselling the Web?: Development and the Internet, Lynne Reiner Publishers, Boulder, CO

[6] Heeks, R., Eskelund, K., Gomez-Morantes, J.E., Malik, F. & Nicholson, B. (2020) Digital Labour Platforms in the Global South: Filling or Creating Institutional Voids?, GDI Digital Development Working Paper no.86, University of Manchester, UK

[7] Heeks, R., Eskelund, K., Gomez-Morantes, J.E., Malik, F. & Nicholson, B. (2020) Digital Labour Platforms in the Global South: Filling or Creating Institutional Voids?, GDI Digital Development Working Paper no.86, University of Manchester, UK

Latest Digital Development Outputs (Agriculture, Data, Social Media) from CDD, Manchester

18 November 2020 Leave a comment

Recent outputs – on Agricultural Platforms; Data-for-Development; Social Media and Education – from the Centre for Digital Development, University of Manchester:

AGRICULTURAL PLATFORMS:

Ag-Platforms in East Africa: National and Regional Policy Gaps” (pdf) by Aarti Krishnan, Karishma Banga & Joseph Feyertag identifies national and regional governance deficits (gaps) in the diffusion of digital agricultural platforms, and consequently how Ag-platforms bridge national and regional policy gaps.

Platforms in Agricultural Value Chains: Emergence of New Business Models” (pdf) by Aarti Krishnan, Karishma Banga & Joseph Feyertag explains the various models of digital agricultural platforms that exist, and provides policy-makers with a roadmap that supports the proliferation of sustainable Ag-platforms.

DATA-FOR-DEVELOPMENT:

Datafication, Value and Power in Developing Countries” by Richard Heeks, Vanya Rakesh, Ritam Sengupta, Sumandro Chattapadhyay & Christopher Foster analyses the implementation challenges and impact of big data on organisational value, sources of power, and wider politics.

Identifying Potential Positive Deviants Across Rice-Producing Areas in Indonesia: An Application of Big Data Analytics and Approaches” (open access) by Basma Albanna, Dharani Dhar Burra & Michael Dyer uses remote sensing and survey data to identify “positive deviant” rice-farming villages in Indonesia: those which outperform their peers in agricultural productivity.

The Urban Data Justice Case Study Collection” (open access) presents ten case studies analysing new urban data in Latin America, Africa and Asia from data justice/rights perspectives.  It also outlines a future research agenda on urban data justice in the global South.

SOCIAL MEDIA AND EDUCATIONAL DEVELOPMENT

WhatsApp-Supported Language Teacher Development: A Case Study in the Zataari Refugee Camp” (open access) by Gary Motteram, Susan Dawson & Nazmi Al-Masri through a thematic analysis of WhatsApp exchanges, explores how Syrian English Language teachers working in refugee camps in Jordan work collaboratively on teacher development.

Context and Digital Start-Ups in the Global South

How does context affect new digital start-ups in the global South?

The open-access paper, “Embeddedness of Digital Start-Ups in Development Contexts” provides some answers, using the Triple Embeddedness Framework:

Based on a study of 19 digital start-ups and 20 other start-up ecosystem organisations, this research makes three main conclusions.

1. Hybrid Embeddedness. These young enterprises are hybrids that straddle multiple contexts:

– They are embedded in both their vertical product sector but also the cross-cutting digital economy.  Some successful start-ups borrow ideas or staff from other digital firms; helping them to innovate in their product sector.

– They are also embedded in both local and global contexts.  Some successful start-ups mimic business models from the US and draw financing and training from the US; and then use this to innovate within their country or region.

2. Optimal Embeddedness. The most-successful digital start-ups find a “Goldilocks”-style sweet spot in their relation to context. They are not so deeply embedded that they are trapped within existing institutions and unable to innovate.  But they are sufficiently embedded that they can draw knowledge, money, skills, etc from their context.

3. Global Peripherality. Some global South digital economies have a “semi-permeable membrane” between themselves and the global North. Ideas and other resources can flow in to assist digital start-ups, but they have some relative protection from external competition.

Practical implications include:

– The need for global South governments to keep building local digital sector institutions; particularly network intermediaries that link local and global digital economies

– The need for digital start-ups to self-analyse their embeddedness: understanding the extent of constraint and freedom imposed by embeddedness in both digital and product sectors

– The need for business methodologies from the global North, such as Lean Start-up, to be re-scoped to better incorporate the realities of global South contexts

We look forward to further work on context and the digital economy in the global South.

Positive Deviance: A Data-Powered Approach to the Covid-19 Response

Nations around the world are struggling with their response to the Covid-19 pandemic.  In particular, they seek guidance on what works best in terms of preventive measures, treatments, and public health, economic and other policies.  Can we use the novel approach of data-powered positive deviance to improve the guidance being offered?

Positive Deviance and Covid-19

Positive deviants are those in a population that significantly outperform their peers.  While the terminology of positive deviance is absent from public discourse on Covid-19, the concept is implicitly present at least at the level of nations.  In an evolving list, countries like New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, South Korea and Germany regularly appear among those seen as most “successful” in terms of their relative infection or death rates so far.

Here we argue first that the ideas and techniques of positive deviance could usefully be called on more directly; second that application of PD is probably more useful at levels other than the nation-state.  In the table below, we summarise four levels at which PD could be applied, giving potential examples and also potential explanators: the factors that underpin the outperformance of positive deviants.

Level Potential positive deviants Potential PD explanators
Nation[i] Countries with very low relative infection or death rates
  • Early lockdown
  • Extensive testing
  • Use of contact-tracing incl. apps
  • Cultural acceptance of mask-wearing
  • Prior mandatory TB vaccination
  • Quality of leadership
Locality (Regions, Cities)[ii] Cities and regions with significantly slower spread of Covid-19 infection than peers
  • Extensive or innovative community education campaigns
  • Testing well in excess of national levels
  • Earlier-than-national lockdown
  • Extensive sanitisation of public transport
  • Quality and breadth of local healthcare
  • Quality of leadership
Facility (Hospitals, Health Centres)[iii] Health facilities with significantly higher recovery rates than peers
  • Innovative use of existing (scarce) healthcare technologies / materials
  • Innovative use of new healthcare technologies: AI, new treatments
  • Level of medical staff expertise and Covid-19-specific training
Health facilities with significantly lower staff infection rates than peers
  • Provision of high-quality personal protective equipment in sufficient quantity
  • Strict adherence to infection monitoring and control measures
  • Strict adherence to high-quality disinfection procedures
  • Innovative use of contact-free healthcare technologies: chat bots, robots, interactive voice response, etc
Individual[iv] Individuals in vulnerable groups who contract full-blown Covid-19 and survive
  • Psychological resilience
  • Physical fitness
  • Absence of underlying health conditions
  • Effective therapies
  • Genetics

 

At present, items in the table are hypothetical and/or illustrative but they show the significant value that could be derived from identification of positive deviants and their explanators.  Those explanators that are under social control – such as use of technological solutions or policy/managerial measures – can be rapidly scaled across populations.  Those explanators such as genetics or pre-existing levels of healthcare capacity which are not under social control can be built into policy responses; for example in customising responses to particular groups or locations.

Evidence from positive deviance analysis can help currently in designing policies and specific interventions to help stem infection and death rates.  Soon it will be able to help design more-effective lockdown exit strategies as these start to show differential results, and as post-lockdown positive deviants start to appear.

However, positive deviance consists of two elements; not just outperformance but outperformance of peers.  It is the “peers” element that confounds the value of positive deviance at the nation-state level.

Public discourse has focused mainly on supposedly outperforming nations [v]; yet countries are complex systems that make meaningful comparisons very difficult[vi]: dataset definitions are different (e.g. how countries count deaths); dataset accuracy is different (with some countries suspected of artificially suppressing death rates from Covid-19); population profiles and densities are different (countries with young, rural populations differing from those with old, urban populations); climates are different (which may or may not have an impact); health service capacities are different; pre-existing health condition profiles are different; testing methods are different; and so on.  Within all this, there is a great danger of apophenia: the mistaken identification of “patterns” in the data that are either not actually present or which are just random.

More valid and hence more useful will be application of positive deviance at lower levels.  Indeed, the lower the level, the more feasible it becomes to identify and control for dimensions of difference and to then cluster data into true peer groups within which positive deviants – and perhaps also some of their explanators – can then be identified.

Data-Powered Positive Deviance and Covid-19

The traditional approach to identifying positive deviants has been the field survey: going out into human populations (positive deviants have historically been understood only as individuals or families) and asking questions of hundreds or thousands of respondents.  Not only was this time-consuming and costly but it also becomes more risky or more difficult or even impractical during a pandemic.

Much better, then, is to look at analysis of large-scale datasets which may be big data[vii] and/or open data, since this offers many potential benefits compared to the traditional approach[viii].  Many such datasets already exist online[ix], while others may be accessed as they are created by national statistical or public health authorities.

Analytical techniques, such as those being developed by the Data-Powered Positive Deviance project, can then be applied: clustering the data into peer groups, defining the level of outperformance needed to be classified as a positive deviant, identifying the positive deviants, then interrogating the dataset further to see if any PD explanators can be extracted from it.

An example already underway is clustering the 368 districts in Germany based on data from the country’s Landatlas dataset and identifying those which are outperforming in terms of spread of the virus.  Retrospective regression analysis is already suggesting structural factors that may be of importance in positive deviant districts: extent and nature of health infrastructure including family doctors and pharmacies, population density, and levels of higher education and of unemployment.

This can then be complemented in two directions – diving deeper into the data via machine learning to try to predict future spread of the disease; and complementing this large-scale open data with “thick data” using online survey and other methods to identify the non-structural factors that may underlie outperformance.  The latter particularly will look for factors under socio-political control such as policies on lockdown, testing, etc.

Of course, great care must be taken here.  Even setting aside deliberate under-reporting, accuracy of the most basic measures – cases of, and deaths from Covid-19 – has some inherent uncertainties[x].  Beyond accuracy are the broader issues of “data justice”[xi] as it applies to Covid-19-related analysis[xii], including:

  • Representation: the issue of who is and is not represented on datasets. Poorer countries, poorer populations, ethnic minority populations are often under-represented.  If not accounted for, data analysis may not only be inaccurate but also unjust.
  • Privacy: arguments about the benefits of analysing data are being used to push out the boundaries of what is seen as acceptable data privacy; opening the possibility of greater state surveillance of populations. As Privacy International notes, any boundary-pushing “must be temporary, necessary, and proportionate”[xiii].
  • Access and Ownership: best practice would seem to be datasets that are publicly-owned and open-access with analysis that is transparently explained. The danger is that private interests seek to sequester the value of Covid-19-related data or its analysis.
  • Inequality: the key systems of relevance to any Covid-19 response are the economic and public health systems. These contain structural inequalities that benefit some more than others.  Unless data-driven responses take this into account, those responses may further exacerbate existing social fracture lines.

However, if these challenges can be navigated, then the potential of data-powered positive deviance can be effectively harnessed in the fight against Covid-19.  By identifying Covid-19 positive deviants, we can spotlight the places, institutions and people who are dealing best with the pandemic.  By identifying PD explanators, we can understand what constitutes best practice in terms of prevention and treatment; from public health to direct healthcare.  By scaling out those PD explanators within peer groups, we can ensure a much-broader application of best practice which should reduce infections and save lives.  And using the power of digital datasets and data analytics, we can do this in a cost- and time-effective manner.

The “Data-Powered Positive Deviance” project will be working on this over coming months.  We welcome collaborations with colleagues around the world on this exciting initiative and encourage you to contact the GIZ Data Lab or the Centre for Digital Development (University of Manchester).

This blogpost was co-authored by Richard Heeks and Basma Albanna and was originally published on the Data-Powered Positive Deviance blog.

 

 

[i] https://interestingengineering.com/7-countries-keeping-covid-19-cases-in-check-so-far; https://www.forbes.com/sites/avivahwittenbergcox/2020/04/13/what-do-countries-with-the-best-coronavirus-reponses-have-in-common-women-leaders; https://www.maskssavelives.org/; https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-02/fewer-coronavirus-deaths-seen-in-countries-that-mandate-tb-vaccine

[ii] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/03/how-should-cities-prepare-for-coronavirus-pandemics/; https://www.wri.org/blog/2020/03/covid-19-could-affect-cities-years-here-are-4-ways-theyre-coping-now; https://www.fox9.com/news/experts-explain-why-minnesota-has-the-nations-lowest-per-capita-covid-19-infection-rate; https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-52269607

[iii] https://hbr.org/2020/04/how-hospitals-are-using-ai-to-battle-covid-19; https://www.cuimc.columbia.edu/news/columbia-develops-ventilator-sharing-protocol-covid-19-patients; https://www.esht.nhs.uk/2020/04/02/innovation-and-change-to-manage-covid-19-at-esht/; https://www.med-technews.com/topics/covid-19/; https://www.innovationsinhealthcare.org/covid-19-innovations-in-healthcare-responds/; https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/23/video-hospital-in-china-where-covid-19-patients-treated-by-robots.html; https://www.researchprofessionalnews.com/rr-news-new-zealand-2020-4-high-quality-ppe-crucial-for-at-risk-healthcare-workers/; https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/sites/default/files/documents/Environmental-persistence-of-SARS_CoV_2-virus-Options-for-cleaning2020-03-26_0.pdf

[iv] https://www.sacbee.com/news/coronavirus/article241687336.html; https://www.thelocal.it/20200327/italian-101-year-old-leaves-hospital-after-recovering-from-coronavirus; https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2020/4/8/21207269/covid-19-coronavirus-risk-factors; https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.04.22.20072124v2; https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-16/your-risk-of-getting-sick-from-covid-19-may-lie-in-your-genes

[v] Specifically, this refers to the positive discourse.  There is a significant “negative deviant” discourse (albeit, again, not using this specific terminology) that looks especially at countries and individuals which are under-performing the norm.

[vi] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/52311014; https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/24/is-comparing-covid-19-death-rates-across-europe-helpful-

[vii] https://www.forbes.com/sites/ciocentral/2020/03/30/big-data-in-the-time-of-coronavirus-covid-19; https://healthitanalytics.com/news/understanding-the-covid-19-pandemic-as-a-big-data-analytics-issue

[viii] https://doi.org/10.1002/isd2.12063

[ix] E.g. via https://datasetsearch.research.google.com/search?query=coronavirus%20covid-19

[x] https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/why-are-covid-19-death-rates-so-hard-to-calculate-experts-weigh-in; https://www.newsletter.co.uk/health/coronavirus/coronavirus-world-health-organisation-accepts-difficulties-teasing-out-true-death-rates-covid-19-2527689

[xi] https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2019.1599039

[xii] https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/openmovements/widening-data-divide-covid-19-and-global-south/; https://www.wired.com/story/big-data-could-undermine-the-covid-19-response/; https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/opinion/2020/03/30/coronavirus-apps-technology; https://botpopuli.net/covid19-coronavirus-technology-rights

[xiii] https://privacyinternational.org/examples/tracking-global-response-covid-19; see also https://globalprivacyassembly.org/covid19/

Protecting Gig Workers During Covid-19: What Platforms Must Do

27 April 2020 1 comment

The estimated 50 million gig workers worldwide have been particularly hard-hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.  How are their platforms responding, and what more should platforms do?

Reports indicate half of gig workers have lost their jobs. Those still working perform functions essential to society, yet they have lost two-thirds of their income on average.  Many face the impossible choice between destitution and infection, as summed up by one worker: “either I’m starving or I’m dying of coronavirus”.

To investigate this further, the Fairwork project research team undertook a survey of platform response policies; as of April 2020, covering 120 platforms in 23 countries across Europe, North America, South America, Asia and Africa.  The report from this analysis – “The Gig Economy and Covid-19: Fairwork Report on Platform Policies” – categorises platform responses according to the five ‘Fairwork Principles’ that our ongoing action research uses to rate platforms against decent work standards:

  • Fair Pay: by far the most important issue for workers; yet only five platforms had direct policies to increase pay for those in work; more common were actions to maintain levels of business, like client fee waivers or expanded scope of services.
  • Fair Conditions 1 (Prevention): cut-and-paste hygiene guidance and contactless delivery (though not contactless collection) were the most widespread policies. Just over half of the platforms we checked said they were providing personal protection equipment (disinfectant or, less often, masks); workers report they often did not receive this.
  • Fair Conditions 2 (Illness): around half of the platforms said they were providing some payment for workers who were ill, but workers reported it could be hard to access and payments often fell well below national minimum wage equivalents.
  • Fair Contracts: the only response here, by a few platforms, has been to try to create a firewall around their current actions; still asserting an arm’s-length relation to workers as “independent contractors”.
  • Fair Management: a few companies are guaranteeing no loss of bonus or incentive levels despite temporary deactivation of workers, or are issuing statements against any attempt by clients to discriminate against certain worker groups.
  • Fair Representation: we found no evidence yet of any platform engagement with worker associations, despite a number of such groups setting out demands and even organising strikes.

Overall, we find widespread responses by platforms to the current pandemic with occasional examples of comprehensive and enlightened policies.  But there are a number of issues in most platforms’ responses to date:

  • There is a gap between rhetoric and reality: platforms have been far better at publicising responses than at actually delivering them to workers.
  • There is a skew in stakeholder focus: platform responses have served shareholders, investors and customers before workers, even though it is workers who form the foundation of all value for the platform.
  • There is a timidity: while governments have torn up ideologies and rulebooks, platforms have generally been only incremental in their response and have too often used the language of the get-out clause rather than that of the guarantee.

Platforms have loaded risks and responsibilities onto others: too many platforms interpret “wash your hands” less in terms of the virus and more in terms of their responsibilities to their workers; throwing that responsibility onto governments for financial support and onto individual workers for their own protection from coronavirus.

Finally, there is a gap between needs and policies: between what workers require in order to stay safe – free from poverty and free from infection – and what platforms are currently providing.  Our report therefore ends with a summary of platform policy recommendations, reproduced here:

Fairwork Principle Recommended Platform Action
1. Fair Pay ·      Rapid access to a minimum income (equivalent to at least the local living wage) for those unable to work due to fall-off in demand, legislative restrictions, or to pre-existing health vulnerabilities

·      Reduction in costs (e.g. platform commission/fees) or increase in per-gig payments for those still working but with reduced earnings

·      Additional hazard pay for those facing additional risks while working during the pandemic

·      Waiver (not deferral) of work-related costs such as loan repayments

·      Facilitated access to interest-free emergency loans

·      Plan for post-lockdown income recovery measures which may include higher per-gig payments or lower commission fees

·      Inclusion in income compensation and financial deferral schemes of all those who have worked for the platform during the past three months

2a. Fair Conditions (Prevention) ·      Regular, adequate, free provision of personal protection equipment: disinfectants, gloves and masks

·      Installation of physical barriers between driver and passengers in all ride-hailing cars

·      Fully contact-free supply chains (both collection and delivery) for delivery workers

·      Daily sanitisation of vehicles and upstream locations: warehouses, hubs, etc.

·      Free Covid-19 check-ups for workers and their families

2b. Fair Conditions (Illness) ·      Accessible sick pay from platforms that applies universally to all those unable to work while ill or quarantined or while providing essential care for sick family members, and which relates to pre-pandemic average earnings

·      Sick pay policies that specify precisely and openly how much workers will be paid, with simple application processes which do not impose onerous health documentation requirements that sick workers cannot meet

·      Extended sick pay for those workers hospitalised by Covid-19 infection

·      Provision of general medical insurance cover

·      Provision of life insurance cover or other death-in-service benefits

3. Fair Contracts ·      No temporary or permanent alteration of contracts during the period of the pandemic to the detriment of workers
4. Fair Management ·      Ensure all Covid-19-related communications are in a form that can be readily accessed and understood by all workers

·      Set up an accessible communications channel for workers for all issues relating to Covid-19; adequately staffed for rapid resolution of issues

·      Transparent reporting of policies, actions and funds initiated by platforms during the pandemic

·      Adhere to data privacy standards in collecting and sharing data about workers

·      No loss of incentives, bonus levels or future availability of jobs for those temporarily deactivated as a result of Covid-19

·      Public statements to customers and others that discrimination against certain worker groups during the pandemic will not be tolerated

5. Fair Representation ·      Formal receipt of, engagement with, and action on Covid-19-related demands from worker representatives

Our intention is to update our report as more platforms adopt such policies.  We would therefore welcome details of updates to existing platform policies, and addition of new platforms and countries.  These can be shared with us via: https://fair.work/contact/

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