Posts Tagged ‘Data-for-Development’

Data Justice for Development

13 October 2016 Leave a comment

What would “data justice for development” mean?  This is a topic of increasing interest.  It sits at the intersection of greater use of justice in development theory, and greater use of data in development practice.  Until recently, very little had been written about it but this has been addressed via a recent Centre for Development Informatics working paper: “Data Justice For Development: What Would It Mean?” and linked presentation / podcast.

Why concern ourselves with data justice in development?  Primarily because there are data injustices that require a response: governments hacking data on political opponents; mobile phone records being released without consent; communities unable to access data on how development funds are being spent.

But to understand what data justice means, we have to return to foundational ideas on ethics, rights and justice.  These identify three different mainstream perspectives on data justice:

  • Instrumental data justice, meaning fair use of data. This argues there is no notion of justice inherent to data ownership or handling.  Instead what matters is the purposes for which data is used.
  • Procedural data justice, meaning fair handling of data. This argues that citizens must give consent to the way in which data about them is processed.
  • Distributive data justice, meaning fair distribution of data. This could directly relate to the issue of who has what data, or could be interpreted in terms of rights-based data justice, relating to rights of data privacy, access, control, and inclusion / representation.

We can use these perspectives to understand the way data is used in development.  But we also need to take account of two key criticisms of these mainstream views.  First, that they pay too little attention to agency and practice including individual differences and choices and the role of individuals as data users rather than just data producers.  Second, that they pay too little attention to social structure, when it is social structure that at least partly determines issues such as the maldistribution of data in the global South, and the fact that data systems in developing countries benefit some and not others.

To properly understand what data justice for development means, then, we need a theory of data justice that goes beyond the mainstream views to more clearly include both structure and agency.

The working paper proposes three possible approaches, each of which provides a pathway for future research on data-intensive development; albeit the current ideas are stronger on the “data justice” than the “for development” component:

  • Cosmopolitan ideas such as Iris Marion Young’s social connection model of justice could link data justice to the social position of individuals within networks of relations.
  • Critical data studies is a formative field that could readily be developed through structural models of the political economy of data (e.g. “data assemblages”) combined with a critical modernist sensitivity that incorporates a network view of power-in-practice.
  • Capability theory that might be able to encompass all views on data justice within a single overarching framework.

Alongside this conceptual agenda could be an action agenda; perhaps a Data-Justice-for-Development Manifesto that would:

  1. Demand just and legal uses of development data.
  2. Demand data consent of citizens that is truly informed.
  3. Build upstream and downstream data-related capabilities among those who lack them in developing countries.
  4. Promote rights of data access, data privacy, data ownership and data representation.
  5. Support “small data” uses by individuals and communities in developing countries.
  6. Advocate sustainable use of data and data systems.
  7. Create a social movement for the “data subalterns” of the global South.
  8. Stimulate an alternative discourse around data-intensive development that places issues of justice at its heart.
  9. Develop new organisational forms such as data-intensive development cooperatives.
  10. Lobby for new data justice-based laws and policies in developing countries (including action on data monopolies).
  11. Open up, challenge and provide alternatives to the data-related technical structures (code, algorithms, standards, etc) that increasingly control international development.

Measuring Barriers to Big Data for Development

How can we measure the barriers to big data for development?  A research paper from Manchester’s Centre for Development Informatics suggests use of the design-reality gap model.

Big data holds much promise for development: to improve the speed, quality and consistency of a wide variety of development decisions[1].  At present, this is more potential than actuality because big data initiatives in developing countries face many barriers[2].

But so far there has been little sense of how these barriers can be systematically measured: work to date tends to be rather broad-brush or haphazard.  Seeking to improve this, we investigated use of an ICT4D framework already known for measurement of barriers: the design-reality gap model.

In its basic form the model is straightforward:

  • It records the gap between the design requirements or assumptions of big data vs. the current reality on the ground.
  • The gap is typically recorded on a scale from 0 (no gap: everything needed for big data is present) to 10 (radical gap: none of the requirements for big data is present).
  • The gap can be estimated via analysis of researchers, or derived directly from interviewees, or recorded from group discussions.
  • It is typically measured along seven “ITPOSMO” dimensions (see below).

As proof-of-concept, the model was applied to measure barriers to big data in the Colombian public sector; gathered from a mix of participant-observation in two IT summits, interviews, and secondary data analysis.
WP62 Graphic v2


As summarised in the figure above, the model showed serious barriers on all seven dimensions:

  • Information: some variety of data but limited volume, velocity and visibility (gap size 7).
  • Technology: good mobile, moderate internet and poor sensor availability with a strong digital divide (gap size 6).
  • Processes: few “information value chain” processes at work to put big data into action (gap size 7).
  • Objectives and values: basic data policies in place but lack of big data culture and drivers (gap size 7).
  • Skills and knowledge: foundational but not specialised big data capabilities (gap size 7).
  • Management systems and structures: general IT systems and structures in place but little specific to big data (gap size 7).
  • Other resources: some budgets earmarked for big data projects (gap size 5).

A simple summary would be that Colombia’s public sector has a number of the foundations or precursors for big data in place, but very few of the specific components that make up a big data ecosystem.  One can turn around each of the gaps to propose actions to overcome barriers: greater use of existing datasets; investments in data-capture technologies; prioritisation of value-generation rather than data-generation processes; etc.

As the working paper notes:

“Beyond the specifics of the particular case, this research provides a proof-of-concept for use of the design-reality gap model in assessing barriers to big data for development. Rephrasing the focus for the exercise, the model could equally be used to measure readiness for big data; BD4D critical success and failure factors; and risks for specific big data initiatives. …

We hope other researchers and consultants will make use of the design-reality gap model for future assessments of big-data-for-development readiness, barriers and risks.”

For those interested in taking forward research and practice in this area, please sign up with the LinkedIn group on “Data-Intensive Development”.

[1] Hilbert, M. (2016) Big data for development, Development Policy Review, 34(1), 135-174

[2] Spratt, S. & Baker, J. (2015) Big Data and International Development: Impacts, Scenarios and Policy Options, Evidence Report no. 163, IDS, University of Sussex, Falmer, UK

A Research Agenda for Data-Intensive Development

18 July 2016 1 comment

In practice, there is a growing role for data within international development: what we can call “data-intensive development”.  But what should be the research agenda for this emerging phenomenon?

On 12th July 2016, a group of 40 researchers and practitioners gathered in Manchester at the workshop on “Big and Open Data for Development”, organised by the Centre for Development Informatics.  Identifying a research agenda was a main purpose for the workshop; particularly looking for commonalities that avoid fractionating our field by data type: big data vs. open data vs. real-time data vs. geo-located data, etc; each in its own little silo.


A key challenge for data-intensive development research is locating the “window of relevance”.  Focus too far back on the curve of technical change – largely determined in the Western private sector – and you may fail to gain attention and interest in your research.  Focus too far forward and you may find there no actual examples in developing countries that you can research.

In 2014 and 2015, we had two failed attempts to organise conference tracks on data-and-development; each generating just a couple of papers.  By contrast, the 2016 workshop received two dozen submissions; too many to accommodate but suggesting a critical mass of research is finally starting to appear.

It is still early days – the reports from practice still give a strong sense of data struggling to find development purposes; development purposes struggling to find data.  But the workshop provided enough foundational ideas, emergent issues, and reports-back from pilot initiatives to show we are putting the basic building blocks of a research domain in place.

But where next?  Through a mix of day-long placing of Post-It notes on walls, presentation responses, and a set of group then plenary discussions[1], we identified a set of future research priorities, as shown below and also here as PDF.

DID Research Agenda



The agenda divided into four sub-domains:

  • Describing/Defining: working out the basic boundaries, contours and contents of the data-intensive development domain.
  • Practising: measuring and learning from the practice of data-intensive development.
  • Analysing: evaluating the impact of data-intensive development through various analytical lenses.
  • Resisting: guiding practical actions to challenge potential state and corporate data hegemony in developing countries.

Given the size and eclectic mix of the group, many different research interests were expressed.  But two came up much more than others.

First, power, politics and data-intensive development: analysing the power structures that shape DID initiatives, and that are inscribed into data systems; analysing the way in which DID produces and reproduces power; analysing what resistance to data hegemony would mean.

Second, justice, ethics, rights and data-intensive development: determining what a social justice perspective on DID would mean; analysing what DID can contribute to rights-based development; understanding how ethical principles would guide civil society interventions for better DID.

We hope, as a research community, to take these and other agenda items forward.  If you would like to join us, please sign up with the LinkedIn group on “Data-Intensive Development”.


[1] My thanks to Jaco Renken for collating these.

Stakeholder Analysis of Open Government Data Initiatives

17 December 2015 Leave a comment

Many different actors are involved in open government data (OGD) initiatives, and it can be hard to understand the different roles they play.

Stakeholder analysis can help, such as mapping onto a power-interest grid (see example below).  This analyses stakeholders according to their power to impact the development and implementation of open government data, and their level of interest in OGD.  The former measured via a typical sources-of-power checklist: reward, coercive, legitimate, expert, personal, informational, affiliative.  The latter measured via text analysis of stakeholder statements.

Primary stakeholders are “those who have formal, official, or contractual relationships and have a direct and necessary… impact” (Savage et al., 1991:62). Others who affect or are affected by OGD but less formally and directly and essentially, can be categorised as secondary.

Applying this to Chile’s open government data initiative produced the mapping shown in the figure.

OGD Stakeholders


We can draw two conclusions.  First, that OGD in Chile has been mostly determined from within government. Second, that it has otherwise been shaped rather more by international than national forces.

Three absent stakeholders can be noted:

  • The local private sector is not an active part of the ecosystem at present, restricting options to derive economic value from OGD.
  • Citizens are not active in discussion or use of open government data, restricting options to derive political value from OGD.
  • Multinational firms and investors are not directly involved, but have a tertiary role: they are an audience to whom the presence and progress of OGD is sometimes projected.

In sum, this is an “inwards and upwards” pattern of open government data which is shaping OGD’s trajectory in the country.  Government is the “sun” and other stakeholders merely “planets”, so that perspectives and agendas within government dominate. One agenda is to broadcast signals of democracy to the outside world.

In facing “upwards” to these external stakeholders, what matters most is an appearance of transparency. This can be satisfied by the presence of datasets, some empowerment and accountability rhetoric in pronouncements, and membership of the Open Government Partnership and adherence to its minimum standards. This is not to say that government stakeholders care nothing for delivery of results; simply that the external audience-related incentives are much stronger for appearance than fulfilment.

Stakeholder analysis should therefore be a fundamental tool for open government data researchers and practitioners; helping them to understand the identities, strengths and weaknesses of key OGD actors.

This research is reported in more detail in: Gonzalez-Zapata, F. & Heeks, R. (2015) The multiple meanings of open government data: understanding different stakeholders and their perspectives, Government Information Quarterly, 32(4), 441-452

The Multiple Meanings of Open Government Data

14 December 2015 Leave a comment

Many different stakeholders are engaged with open government data (OGD) initiatives, and they understand OGD differently.  In what way?

Recent research from the University of Manchester’s Centre for Development Informatics identifies four different perspectives that derive from OGD’s conceptual foundations (see figure):

  • The bureaucratic perspective – associated with ideas of government data – sees OGD as a government policy that uses greater data management efficiency and effectiveness to improve public service delivery.
  • The technological perspective – associated with ideas of open data – sees OGD as a technological innovation that improves the functional qualities of government data infrastructure.
  • The political perspective – associated with ideas of open government – sees OGD as akin to a fundamental right that will empower citizens and improve transparency and accountability of government to citizens.
  • The economic perspective – emergent from the ideas of open government data itself – sees OGD as a means to create additional economic value through new products and services.

OGD Perspectives

This perspectives model was applied – via template analysis of text from reports and interviews – to analyse open government data in Chile, which was one of the second cohort of Open Government Partnership members.

Analysis showed a dominance of bureaucratic and political perspectives. The technological and economic perspectives are present but they are not really incorporated into the mainstream discourse around policy and strategy on OGD in Chile. This reflects the lack of voice for technical experts and private firms within that discourse.

Looking at the two principal perspectives, there is the sense of a mirror image. The bureaucratic perspective is strongest within government and is shared to some degree by international organisations and local activists. The political perspective is strongest outside government via international organisations and local activists and is shared to some degree by government stakeholders.

Within government, the political perspective is used particularly for outwards messages around the values of OGD that are broadcast to international stakeholders.  But the bureaucratic perspective prevails in internal discourse around the administration and implementation of OGD.  With the bureaucratic perspective therefore dominating implementation, it can be argued that the political perspective reflects aspiration but the bureaucratic perspective reflects reality; a reality that has therefore not yet fully delivered on the political or economic potential of OGD.

Using this analytical model as a lens to examine specific OGD contexts will help those involved understand themselves, those they work with, and how best to manage the different identities and values of all OGD stakeholders.  We therefore invite others to repeat this perspectives analysis in other countries.

This research is reported in more detail in: Gonzalez-Zapata, F. & Heeks, R. (2015) The multiple meanings of open government data: understanding different stakeholders and their perspectives, Government Information Quarterly, 32(4), 441-452

Data-X Development: What’s In A Name?

16 November 2015 5 comments

What should we call the growing presence of data in international development?

That’s a question I posed on the ICT4D Facebook group.

Though #datarev is a popular hashtag, “data revolution …” did not arise, and just as well – it is naive hyperbole to suggest data is going to transform development structures.

The proposed terms fall into four orientation categories.

1. Goal-oriented terms. The main one here is “data for development” which is admirable in focusing on the purpose of the data, and in offering a ready-made acronym – D4D – which I’ve talked about earlier. It’s moderately-popular, partly thanks to Orange’s D4D Challenge, and has a nice continuity with ICT4D.  The term is new, but the main problem is its failure to reflect the changing role of data in development – data has always been used for development purposes.

2. Facilitation-oriented terms, especially “data-enabled development” (DED) (data-facilitated, data-catalysed as synonyms). This has the same problem as D4D: per se, the term gives no sense of the change that has occurred. And DED has no presence in the field as a term.

3. Impetus-oriented terms, especially “data-driven development” (DDD) (data-centric as a synonym). This has some presence in the field, though less so than D4D, with – for example – a World Economic Forum group and report on DDD, and the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data having some commitment to the term. I’m guessing this will become more widely-adopted – “data-driven” already has Wikipedia entries for equivalents such as data-driven journalism.  However, it rings many alarm bells in placing too much deterministic emphasis on data as an agent in development – put simply, people not data drive development.

4. Change-oriented terms, especially “data-intensive development” (DID) (data-rich as a synonym). The great thing about this term is that it explains what is new and different – that data is playing a greater role in development decisions and processes – without so-much falling into traps of determinism and value judgement. I think “data-intensive development” is the most appropriate of the terms on offer.  As yet it is little-used, so the only way is up . . .

If you’ve got a better suggestion, you’re welcome to say what it is and why it’s better.

The Curse of Hyper-Transparency

27 February 2015 10 comments

Openness and transparency are good things and the more we have of them the better.  Right?  Wrong.

In contexts of too little openness – “hypo-transparency” – ICTs can help bring greater transparency, with positive developmental effects.  But in contexts of relative openness, ICTs are ushering in a hyper-transparency that will destroy public institutions.  As summarised in the figure below, I therefore propose an inverse-U relation between e-transparency and various measures of political development, such as trust in public institutions.

Inverse U Transparency

As an experiment, try the following.  View your beloved from a very far distance.  They are a tiny speck, and you feel nothing for them.  Now move closer to view them from a few feet away.  Likely you will see much to admire and feel a warm glow (if not, it may be time for an upgrade).  Now get up really, really close and examine them in minute detail – take a look up their nose, in their ears, inside their . . . well, you get the idea.  That glow’s probably not quite so warm now, is it?

Something similar happens with ICTs and transparency.  Applied in corrupt, opaque, self-serving environments, ICTs have been shown to reduce corruption and improve the efficiency and equity of practice.  But applied further in democratic environments where a reasonable degree of e-transparency and openness already exists, ICTs can make things worse rather than better.

Through greater e-transparency, ICTs help us know ever-more about the behaviour (decisions and actions) of those within public institutions.  The majority of that behaviour will be appropriate.  But humans are flawed, so they will always make mistakes, act selfishly, and do bad things.  Absent other effects, the greater the transparency, the greater the absolute amount of such inappropriate behaviour that will be revealed, and the less citizens will value and trust public institutions.

Any effects of transparency in reducing the amount of behaviour that is inappropriate are mitigated both internally and externally.  Internally, transparency pushes institutions to spend increasing time on non-value-adding defensive activities.  These include trying to second-guess and avoid what might cause offence or other negative public reaction; excessive caution in behaviour to avoid risk or failure; and inefficiencies in protecting necessary confidential interactions – the “safe space for genuine deliberation” – from external gaze.  Yet, “without the exchange of confidences, it is not possible for people to have real confidence in their colleagues and in the organisations that employ them”[1].

Externally, ever-greater flows of e-transparency data undermine public institutions because of . . .

  • Cognitive deficits: the greater the flow of data, the lower the absolute availability of knowledge and motivation among the public to properly interpret that data, leading to a dominance of simplistic interpretations, many of which are negative because of . . .
  • Cognitive bias: the negativity bias that causes humans to attend more to bad than good news, to remember bad more than good news, and to form negative stereotypes more quickly which are more resistant to disconfirmation. And the tendency, for example when searching online, to attend to extreme rather than average data.  Extreme and negative interpretations of data on public institutions become more prevalent because of . . .
  • Political incentives: attention and profile online accrue to those who posit more extreme views, and there are plenty of commentators who have political or economic incentives to criticise current public institutions and who – within already-relatively-open contexts – are able to do so. They have an ability to shape the narrative in part because citizens give up their own interpretation due to cognitive deficits.  And thus we have a self-reinforcing spiral.

The impact of this can be seen, for example, in the decline of trust in public institutions in democracies during the Internet era.  Dating this from the turn of the century, some illustrations:

Of course e-transparency is not the only factor behind trust, but a review of some key literature finds little evidence that transparency builds trust.  Instead, “in a number of cases, the evidence points in another direction: that is, transparency may ultimately decrease trust”.

This has a number of negative knock-on consequences if lack of trust leads to calls for greater transparency which leads to a further erosion of trust.  With only a minority – sometimes a small minority – of citizens trusting institutions, those institutions are weakened in their ability to defend the public realm and public interests.  And we see a shift in power from public to private institutions, and from centrist to more extreme political views and parties.

Is this an argument against e-transparency?  It is not.  But it is an argument that:

  1. We are guided by the inverse-U curve to give highest priority to using ICTs to open up the most-powerful, least-transparent institutions. That means authoritarian regimes and transnational corporations.  Oh, and FIFA.  Don’t applaud Edward Snowden until he exposes the workings of the 3PLA, or Julian Assange until he leaks the tax avoidance plans of global IT firms.  If you want a transparency hero, pick Herve Falciani.
  2. We place greater emphasis on accountability than transparency. Transparency, in Furedi’s words, fosters “a political culture of voyeurism”.  Accountability – at least when properly designed – fosters reasoned, considered checks and balances against abuse of power.
  3. We accept there are limits to openness, and that we want transparency but not hyper-transparency: “A democratic society should understand that it is important to uphold the right to the private exchange of views and that not everything officials do ought to be visible to all”[2].


[1] Furedi, F. (2011) Let’s stop kowtowing to the cult of transparency, Spiked, 5 Oct

[2] Furedi ibid.

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