Posts Tagged ‘Data-for-Development’

The Curse of Hyper-Transparency

27 February 2015 11 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.

From ICT4D to D4D?

10 December 2014 13 comments

The UN Secretary General’s Synthesis Report on the Post-2015 Agenda was released on 4th December.  It’s just one document but could be bellwether of future development priorities.

It represents the culmination of a historical trajectory in the relative presence of “ICT” vs “data” in the development discourse.  As discussed in a more detailed post-2015 vs. MDG agenda analysis, ICTs outpolled data at the turn of the century in the Millennium Development Goals.  In early post-2015 development agenda documents, this reversed – data was mentioned three times more than ICTs.  In the Synthesis Report, the ratio is close to 10:1.  Data is mentioned 39 times; ICT just four times.

What would it mean if data replaces ICTs as the core focus for informatics[1] in international development?

For many years there have been concerns about the techno-centricity of ICT4D: the assumption that technology, alone, can be sufficient to generate development; and the failure to recognise the wider contextual factors that govern the impacts of technology.  Moving to a data-centric view helps a bit: it moves us to think about the stuff that technology handles, rather than the technology per se.

But it doesn’t help a lot.  As Information Systems 101 teaches, it is information, not data, that has value and adds value.  And a data-centric view is not inherently better than a techno-centric one at recognising the importance of context.  For both these reasons, as I’ve discussed earlier in this blog, it looks like many “data-for-development (D4D)” initiatives to date are stuck at the very first upstream step of the process – they produce data but only rarely produce results.

For the academic community working in the sub-discipline of development informatics, a relative shift from ICT4D to D4D will mean a requirement for new research focus and skills.  At the least, we will need to add new research projects and research competencies around data and decision sciences.  At the most, these might partly replace – at least in relative weight – technical computing activities and capabilities.

That reorientation will certainly be true of the practitioner community, leading to demand for new postgraduates programmes – MSc Data for Development and the like.  Just as with ICT4D, there will be a key role for practitioner hybrids – those with the ability to bridge between the world of data and the world of development – and a need for training programmes to help develop such roles.  Arguably the most valuable role – to some extent trailled in my work on ICT4D 2.0 – will be the development informatics “tribrid”, that bridges the three worlds of ICT, data systems, and development.

The existing academic wateringholes and channels of development informatics will need to respond.  In particular, the main ICT4D conferences and journals will need to decide whether to make a clear and strong extension of their remit into D4D.  Mark Graham and I have made a first step with the 2015 IFIP WG9.4 conference in Sri Lanka; adding a “Data Revolution in International Development” track.  This is an example of academic tribridisation: ensuring technology, data and development are covered in one place.  It will be interesting to see what the ICTD conference series, and the main journals, do about the coming D4D wave and whether they also tribridise.

Some of the policy and practice wateringholes have already responded.  One well-placed convocation is the World Telecommunication / ICT Indicators Symposium.  This has, for some time, covered data, ICT and development and could grow to become a key tribrid location.  More important but more difficult will be whether the WSIS follow-up process can do the same.  As previously analysed, and unless it takes some decisive action, WSIS runs the risk of seeing the data-for-development bandwagon roll past it.

There are no doubt other implications of the limelight shifting from ICT4D to D4D: do add your own thoughts.  These implications include value judgements.  Data is not the same as technology, and the international development agenda risks taking its eye off ICT just at the moment when a digital development paradigm is emerging; a moment when ICT moves from being a tool for development to the platform for development.

Without a better connection between D4D and ICT4D we also risk losing all the lessons of the latter for the former, and turning the clock back to zero for those now entering the development informatics field riding in the data caravan.  It is the privilege of those new to a field to believe they are reinventing the world.  It is the burden of those experienced in a field to know they are not.

[1] “Informatics” is the complex of data, information, knowledge, information systems, and information and communication technologies.

The Data Revolution Will Fail Without A Praxis Revolution

14 August 2014 7 comments

Pose the following to data-revolution-for-development activists: “Show me an initiative of yours that has led to scaled, sustained development outcomes”.

If – as likely – they struggle, there’s a simple reason.  We have not yet connected the data revolution to a praxis revolution for development.  The data revolution takes advantage of technical changes to deliver new volume, speed, and variety of data.  The praxis revolution makes changes to development processes and structures in order to turn that data into development outcomes.

Perhaps data activists never took, or fell asleep during, Information Systems 101.  Because the very first session of that course teaches you the information value chain.  You’ll find variants of the example below in Chapter 1 of most information systems textbooks.

New Info Value Chain

It explains that data per se is worthless.  Value – and development results – only derive from information used in decisions that are implemented as actions.  To make that happen you also need the intelligence to process the data into information; the imperative that motivates you to run the whole chain through; and the soft capabilities and hard resources to access data and take action[1].

It is – relatively – easy to deliver the new data and to attack the ‘access’ issue by lowering skill and technological barriers for development decision makers, for example via good data analytic and visualisation techniques.  It is much more difficult to address the praxis components of the chain.  That’s not just a question of providing information-, decision-, and action-related skills and other resources for individuals.  It will typically require:

– new, more evidence-based decision-making processes

– new, more agile decision-making structures

– new institutional values and incentives that orient towards these new decision-making modes.

At present, that does not seem to be happening.  If we create a quasi-heatmap of the focus for some key data-revolution-for-development (DReD) sources[2], then we see that almost all the focus lies at the source of the value chain or before (prioritisation, digitisation, standardisation, etc of data).  There is a very little thought given to the development impact of data.  And the “wings” of intelligence and imperative, and the core of praxis (information-decision-action) are missing.

Heatmap Info Value Chain

“Heatmap” of Key Data-Revolution-for-Development Sources


Of course that’s partly understandable: there’s a clue in the term data revolution; in the remit set for organisations like Global Pulse; and in the technical profiles of most of those involved.

And the limited incursion of techies into praxis is partly welcome.  As Evgeny Morozov has noted, the techie prescription for praxis is algorithimic regulation – a steady incursion of automation into the downstream stages of the value chain which assumes digital decisions and actions are some apolitical and rational optimum, which denies the importance of politics and thus neuters political debate, and which diverts attention from the causes of society’s ills to their effects with the attitude: “there’s an app for that”.

So, at present, we face two future problematic streams. One in which a great deal of money is wasted on DReD initiatives that make no impact.  One in which a technocentric view of praxis prevails.

Both require the same solution.  First, an explicit recognition of information value chains in the design and implementation of all DReD projects.  Second, a more multidisciplinary approach to these initiatives which incorporates participants capable of both debating and delivering the praxis revolution: those with information systems, organisation development and political economy skills are probably more relevant than decision scientists – to paraphrase Morozov, we’ve got quite enough Kahnemans and could do with a few more Machiavellis.


[1] Developed from Heeks & Kanashiro (2009) with a modification courtesy of Omar Malik, University of Nottingham, UK.

[2] Analysis of the content of:;; and  A fuller and more robust analysis will require more sources and co-coding of content.

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