Posts Tagged ‘Digital Development’

Do Outsourcing Clients Want Decent Digital Work?

22 December 2017 Leave a comment

There are growing concerns that digital gig work – supplied by platforms like Mechanical Turk, Upwork, Freelancer, etc – falls short of decent work standards.  (For further details see the working paper, “Decent Work and the Digital Gig Economy”.)  To address this, and as discussed previously in this blog, there are plans to encourage new ethical standards.

But almost all evidence on this to date comes from workers.  The voices of only a few platforms have been heard, and there seems to be no evidence from clients.  Yet clients are central to decent digital work standards: if they create incentives for platforms to improve, that will be a powerful motivation.  Conversely, if clients don’t care, it removes a key driving force from the gig economy ecosystem.

So, what evidence can be found?

Here, I summarise Babin, R., & Myers, P. (2015) Social responsibility trends and perceptions in global IT outsourcing, Proceedings of the Conference on Information Systems Applied Research, v8, n3663.  This in turn summarises results from surveys conducted during 2009-2014 by the International Association of Outsourcing Professionals.

The survey was specifically about corporate social responsibility (CSR) in IT outsourcing.  So: a) it is not exactly about digital gig work but a broader category of outsourcing; b) the survey may encourage some level of “virtue signalling”: respondents wanting to appear more socially-responsible than they are in reality.  Nonetheless, it offers some relevant guidance about client attitudes to decent digital work.

In general terms, half the respondents were US-based; half were non-US; a fair reflection of gig work clients.  They ranged from SMEs to multinationals and just over half had a written CSR policy.  They are thus larger and more formally-CSR-inclined than the modal micro-enterprise client for digital gig work, but important given the increasing involvement of firms in gig outsourcing.

Key findings include the following:

– Nearly half “often” or “always” gave preference to outsourcing providers who had demonstrable CSR capability.

– Nearly two-thirds expected CSR consideration to become “more” or “much more” important in their future IT outsourcing.

– The largest factor in evaluating CSR capabilities of an outsourcing provider was its labour practices (see figure below).

Figure: Key factors in evaluating the CSR capabilities of an outsourcing provider, survey median (IAOP, 2009-14)

At least for this group of clients, then, the type of labour practices covered by proposed decent digital work standards were the top CSR issue; and CSR was quite widespread as a determinant in digital-related outsourcing (only 5% said they never used CSR as a determinant).

This gives some basis for believing – at least among larger clients for digital gig work – that an appetite exists for better employment and working conditions; an appetite that can encourage platforms to change.


Decent Digital Work and the FairWork Foundation

31 October 2017 1 comment

How can we improve standards for digital gig workers: those undertaking micro-work and online freelancing via platforms like Upwork and Mechanical Turk?

The recent research paper – “Decent Work and the Digital Gig Economy” – explains why such standards are needed.  With up to 70m workers worldwide registered for online work and growth rates of 20-30% per year, this is already a sizeable activity.  It is especially popular with the c.80% of workers based in middle- and low-income countries, who often see online work as better than local alternatives.  However, this ignores the chronic precarity and structural inequality associated with such work: damaging outcomes that will only spread if nothing is done.

But what should be done?

The paper develops an inventory of “Decent Digital Work” standards.  This is a comprehensive set of guidelines that integrates two things: first, the global decent work standards set by the ILO; second, the actions needed to address specific digital gig economy problems.

A key value for this inventory is as a comparator with other decent work initiatives.  For example, the paper analyses the way in which two major initiatives – SA8000, and the Ethical Trading Initiative – do and do not cover the requirements for decent digital work.

Below, a further comparison is undertaken, between the Decent Digital Work standards, and the criteria adopted by the FairWork Foundation; an initiative aiming to rate and certify gig economy platforms.  The table indicates those elements which are the same in both standards; those where a completely-different element is included; and those where there is some variation in the element.

From this, three things can be concluded:

a) A number of Decent Digital Work standards are absent in the FairWork Foundation certification criteria. Several of these relate to the broader context for work, would be outwith the scope of an individual platform, and therefore are not relevant to platform certification. However, those identified under “Employment” and “Work Conditions” can form part of a further discussion to consider their relevance to certification.

b) Some elements (e.g. around access to digital work opportunities, and accounting for worker costs other than unpaid time) speak to the particular conditions of gig workers from the global South. This is the location for the great majority of gig workers: already for digital gig workers; increasingly for physical gig workers. As such, the FairWork Foundation must ensure its global North origins do not skew its focus.

c) The FairWork Foundation should review how prevalent the non-competition and non-disclosure agreement problems are, and whether they are worth including. (Human review of task instructions – something unlikely to be practicable for most platforms – appears to have been dropped from later versions of the certification criteria; hence, its inclusion in brackets.)

As noted in the Decent Work and the Digital Gig Economy paper’s action research agenda, next steps here would be:

– Survey of worker, client and platform views about identified standards.

– A multi-stakeholder dialogue to agree a minimum set of certification standards and evaluation methods.

– Parallel research on the impact of standards and certifications in the gig economy, and analysing the costs and benefits of interventions such as standards and certifications at micro- and macro-level.

This is just one example of the application of the Decent Digital Work standards.  We hope you can identify other uses . . .

The Affordances and Impacts of Data-Intensive Development

What is special about “data-intensive development”: the growing presence and application of data in the processes of international development?

We can identify three levels of understanding: qualities, affordances, and development impacts.

A. Data Qualities

Overused they may be but it still helps to recall the 3Vs.  Data-intensive development is based on a greater volume, velocity and variety of data than previously seen.  These are the core differentiating qualities of data from which affordances and impacts flow.

B. Data Affordances

The qualities are inherent functionalities of data.  From these qualities, combined with purposive use by individuals or organisations, the following affordances emerge[1]:

  • Datafication: an expansion of the phenomena about which data are held. A greater breadth: holding data about more things. A greater depth: holding more data about things.  And a greater granularity: holding more detailed data about things.  This is accelerated by the second affordance . . .
  • Digitisation: not just the conversion of analogue to digital data but the same conversion for all parts of the information value chain. Data processing and visualisation for development becomes digital; through growth of algorithms, development decision-making becomes digital; through growth of automation and smart technology, development action becomes digital.  Digitisation means dematerialisation of data (its separation from physical media) and liquification of data (its consequent fluidity of movement across media and networks), which underlie the third affordance . . .
  • Generativity: the use of data in ways not planned at the origination of the data. In particular, data’s reprogrammability (i.e. using data gathered for one purpose for a different purpose); and data’s recombinability (i.e. mashing up different sets of data to get additional, unplanned value from their intersection).

C. Data-Intensive Development Impacts

In turn, these affordances give rise to development impacts.  There are many ways in which these could be described, with much written about the (claimed) positive impacts.  Here I use a more critical eye to select four that can be connected to the concept of data (in)justice for development[2]:

i. (In)Visibility. The affordances of data create a far greater visibility for those development entities – people, organisations, processes, things, etc. – about which data is captured. They can more readily be part of development activity and decision making.  And they can also suffer loss of privacy and growth in surveillance from the state and private sector[3].

Conversely, those entities not represented in digital data suffer greater invisibility, as they are thrown further into shadow and exclusion from development decision-making.

Dematerialisation and generativity also make the whole information value chain increasingly invisible.  Data is gathered without leaving a physical trace.  Data is processed and decisions are made by algorithms whose code is not subject to external scrutiny.  The values, assumptions and biases inscribed into data, code and algorithms are unseen.

ii. Abstraction. A shift from primacy of the physical representation of development entities to their abstract representation: what Taylor & Broeders (2015) call the “data doubles” of entities, and the “shadow maps” of physical geographies. This abstraction typically represents a shift from qualitative to quantitative representation (and a shift in visibility from the physical to the abstract; from the real thing to its data imaginary).

iii. Determinism.  Often thought of in terms of solutionism: the growing use of data- and technology-driven approaches to development.  Alongside this growth in technological determinism of development, there is an epistemic determinism that sidelines one type of knowledge (messy, local, subjective) in favour of a different type of knowledge (remote, calculable and claiming-to-be-but-resolutely-not objective).  We could also identify the algorithmic determinism that increasingly shapes development decisions.

iv. (Dis)Empowerment. As the affordances of data change the information value chain, they facilitate change in the bases of power. Those who own and control the data, information, knowledge, decisions and actions of the new data-intensive value chains – including its code, visualisations, abstractions, algorithms, terminologies, capabilities, etc – are gaining in power.  Those who do not are losing power in relative terms.

D. Review

The idea of functionalities leading to affordances leading to impacts is too data-deterministic.  These impacts are not written, and they will vary through the different structural inscriptions imprinted into data systems, and through the space for agency that new technologies always permit in international development.  Equally, though, we should avoid social determinism.  The technology of data systems is altering the landscape of international development.  Just as ICT4D research and practice must embrace the affordances of its digital technologies, so data-intensive development must do likewise.

[1] Developed from: Lycett, M. (2013) ‘Datafication’: making sense of (big) data in a complex world. European Journal of Information Systems, 22(4), 381-386; Nambisan, S. (2016) Digital entrepreneurship: toward a digital technology perspective of entrepreneurship, Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, advance online publication

[2] Developed from: Johnson, J.A. (2014) From open data to information justice. Ethics And Information Technology, 16(4), 263-274; Taylor, L. & Broeders, D. (2015) In the name of development: power, profit and the datafication of the global South. Geoforum, 64, 229-237; Sengupta, R., Heeks, R., Chattapadhyay, S. & Foster, C. (2017) Exploring Big Data for Development: An Electricity Sector Case Study from India, GDI Development Informatics Working Paper no.66, University of Manchester, UK; Shaw, J. & Graham, M. (2017) An informational right to the city? Code, content, control, and the urbanization of information. Antipode, advance online publication; Taylor, L. (2017) What Is Data Justice? The Case for Connecting Digital Rights and Freedoms on the Global Level, TILT, Tilburg University, Netherlands

[3] What Taylor & Broeders (2015) not entirely convincingly argue is a change from overt and consensual “legibility” to tacit and contentious “visibility” of citizens (who now morph into data subjects).


The Demographics of Digital Development

13 April 2017 2 comments

Any emergent digital development paradigm will be shaped by three changing demographics of ICT usage: geographical, maturational and experiential.

Geographically, we have already moved from domination of the old Internet world (the US and Europe) to domination of the new Internet world (emerging nations of the global East and South), as summarised in the table below[1].  Use of digital technology in developing countries[2] now represents the majority not minority global experience.


Region % Share in 2001 % Share in 2017
Africa 1% 9%
Middle East 1% 4%
Latin America/Caribbean 5% 10%
Asia 32% 50%
North America 30% 9%
Oceania 2% 1%
Europe 29% 17%

Regional Share of Global Internet Users (2001, 2017)


Maturationally, there are growing numbers of digital natives: defined as those 15-24 year olds with five or more years of online experience[3].  While only around one-fifth of the youth cohort in developing countries are digital natives (compared to four-fifths in the global North), youth in the global South as twice as likely to be digital natives as the total population, and so they have a disproportionate role which might be worth specific encouragement.  Given they see ICTs as more important and more beneficial than others do, and given they make proportionately greater use of digital technologies and of social networks, then engagement of digital natives – for example in education or politics – may be enhanced by ensuring there are effective digital channels in these sectors.

Experientially, ICT users are experiencing changes that include[4]:

  • Time-space compression: a shortening of timespans for activities moving towards Castells’ notion of “timeless time” in which biological and clock time are replaced by compressed, desequenced notions of time; and a new geography that replaces physical distance with virtual space so that individual experience moves from a “space of places” to a “space of flows”[5].
  • Public to private: moving from shared-use to individual-use models of ICT interaction. Voice communication is moving from public payphones to shared mobile phones to individually-owned mobile phones.  Internet access is moving from public access telecentres and cybercafés to semi-public home or work computers to personal mobile devices.  The digital experience thus becomes increasingly private and personal.
  • Fixed to mobile: as mobile devices become the dominant means of access to digital infrastructure and content.
  • Text/audio to audio-visual: while it may be premature to call the emergence of a post-literate society, increasing bandwidth and technical capabilities mean digital experiences can increasingly resemble rich, natural real-life experiences rather than the artificial restrictions of just text or just audio.

One can argue that all four cases, represent an increasing presence yet decreasing visibility of the digital as its mediation merges more seamlessly into everyday life and activities.  This growth-but-disappearance of mediation thus represents a final experiential trend – that digital technologies more-and-more intercede between us and our experiences, and yet we notice them doing this less-and-less.  If the medium is the message, our conscious awareness of the message may be diminishing.

All three of these trends – geographical, maturational and experiential – form the emerging background underlying digital development, which is the subject of a Development Informatics working paper: “Examining “Digital Development”: The Shape of Things to Come?”, and will be the topic for future blog entries.

[1] IWS (2017) Internet Usage Statistics, Internet World Stats


[3] ITU (2013) Measuring the Information Society 2013, International Telecommunication Union, Geneva

[4] Barney, D. (2004) The Network Society, Polity Press, Cambridge, UK; Boettiger, S., Toyama, K. & Abed, R. (2012) Natural obsolescence of Village Phone, in: ICTD’12, ACM, New York, NY, 221-229; Molony, T. (2012) ICT and human mobility: cases from developing countries and beyond, Information Technology for Development, 18(2), 87-90; Ridley, M. (2009) Beyond literacy, in: Pushing the Edge, D.M. Mueller (ed), American Library Association, Chicago, IL, 210-213

[5] Castells, M. (2000) Materials for an exploratory theory of the network society, British Journal of Sociology, 51(1), 5-24

Technology Foundations for Digital Development

If there is to be a coming digital development paradigm, on what technologies will it be based?

Mobile, broadband, and mobile broadband (hence smartphones and tablets) will be a key foundation for the digital development paradigm.  They are already present or rapidly diffusing in developing countries.

As these diffuse, cloud, social media and other Web 2.0 applications necessary for digital platforms will become dominant.  The highest growth rates for cloud are already in the global South[1].  Social media is already dominated by the global South: by 2016 North America and Europe made up just 26% of global social network users, with 52% in Asia (including Oceania), 13% in Central/South America, and 9% in the Middle East and Africa[2].

Looking further ahead, of technologies likely to have a significant impact on development, the Internet of things is a main contender: the online connectivity of increasing numbers of objects.  The main growth area – 50 billion devices predicted by 2020[3] – is seen to be two types of connection.  First, stand-alone sensors – for example providing agricultural readings from fields, or medical readings from health centres.  Second, sensors integrated into mainstream objects from cars and refrigerators to toilets and shoes.

All these applications become smart when they move from a passive ability to collect and transmit data to an active ability to take a decision and action on the basis of that data: smart irrigation systems that automatically water dry crops; smart electricity grids that automatically isolate and re-route around transmission failures.   Even more than cloud, smart systems bring significant potential to increase efficiency and effectiveness of infrastructure and business, alongside significant potential to increase dependency and vulnerabilities to cybercrime and surveillance[4].

Digital ICTs have already moved us along the time dimension to a world of 24/7 everywhen connectivity (see Figure 1[5]).  Thanks to telecommunications advances, anywhere can now be connected, and we are slowly erasing the blank spaces on the digital map and moving towards everywhere being connected.  In terms of nodes, pretty well anyone and anything could now be connected thanks to ubiquitous computing.  There is still a very long way to go but within a generation almost everyone will be connected, and we will be steadily moving closer to everything being connected thus vastly multiplying the number of “points of potential control, resistance, and contestation”[6].

Figure 1: The Growing Domain of Digital Connectivity

We can therefore think of three generations of technological infrastructure for digital development (see Figure 2).  The first, already well-rooted, is based largely around mobile devices.  The second, currently emerging, is based around digital platforms and the Internet including Web 2.0 applications.  The third, currently nascent, will be based around a ubiquitous computing model of sensors, embedded processing and near-universal connectivity, and widespread use of smart applications.

Figure 2: The Generations of Digital Infrastructure for Development

Digital development is the subject of a Development Informatics working paper: “Examining “Digital Development”: The Shape of Things to Come?”, and is the topic for other blog entries.


[1] UNCSTD (2013) Issues Paper on ICTs for Inclusive Social and Economic Development, UN Commission on Science Technology and Development, Geneva

[2] WAS (2016) Digital in 2016, We Are Social, Singapore

[3] Pew Research Center (2014) The Internet of Things Will Thrive by 2025, Pew Research Center, Washington, DC

[4] UNCSTD (ibid.)

[5] Adapted from ITU (2005) The Internet of Things, International Telecommunication Union, Geneva

[6] p24 of Deibert, R. & Rohozinski, R. (2012) Contesting cyberspace and the coming crisis of authority, in: Access Contested: Security, Identity, and Resistance in Asian Cyberspace, Deibert, R.J., Palfrey, J.G., Rohozinski, R. & Zittrain, J. (eds), MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 21-41

An Emerging Digital Development Paradigm?

28 February 2017 5 comments

Taking a longer-term view, the relationship between digital ICTs and international development can be divided into three paradigms – “pre-digital”, “ICT4D”, and “digital development” – that rise and fall over time (see Figure below).


Changing Paradigms of ICTs and Development


The pre-digital paradigm dominated from the mid-1940s to mid-1990s, and conceptualised a separation between digital ICTs and development[1].  During this period, digital ICTs were increasingly available but they were initially ignored by the development mainstream.  When, later, digital technologies began to diffuse into developing countries, they were still isolated from the development mainstream.  ICTs were used to support the internal processes of large public and private organisations, or to create elite IT sector jobs in a few countries.  But they did not touch the lives of the great majority of those living in the global South.

The ICT4D paradigm has emerged since the mid-1990s, and conceptualised digital ICTs as a useful tool for development[2].  The paradigm arose because of the rough synchrony between general availability of the Internet – a tool in search of purposes, and the Millennium Development Goals – a purpose in search of tools.  ICTs were initially idolised as the tool for delivery of development but later began to be integrated more into development plans and projects as a tool for delivery of development.

The isolationism of the pre-digital paradigm remains present: we still find policy content and policy structures that segregate ICTs.  But integrationism is progressing, mainstreaming ICTs as a tool to achieve the various development goals.  From the development side, we see this expressed in national policy portfolios, in Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, in UN Development Assistance Frameworks.  From the ICT side, we see this expressed in national ICT policies and World Summit on the Information Society action lines.

The ICT4D paradigm is currently dominant and will be for some years to come.  Yet just at the moment when it is starting to be widely adopted within national and international development systems, a new form is hoving into view: a digital development paradigm which conceptualises ICT not as one tool among many that enables particular aspects of development, but as the platform that increasingly mediates development.

This is the subject of a Development Informatics working paper: “Examining “Digital Development”: The Shape of Things to Come?”, and will be the topic for future blog entries.


[1] Heeks, R. (2009) The ICT4D 2.0 Manifesto: Where Next for ICTs and International Development?, Development Informatics Working Paper no.42, IDPM, University of Manchester, UK

[2] ibid.

The Politics of Disconnection: Network Geography, Trump, Sanders, Brexit, et al


Due to advances in transport and digital infrastructure, we live in an increasingly-connected world.  The value of global flows rose from US$5tr in 1990 to US$30tr in 2014[1].  In the same period, international travel grew from 435m to 1.1bn per year.

But this global interconnection – and the economic crash that was its direct result – has led to a powerful counter-reaction, with challenger politics emerging from both right and left.  The figureheads in the global North are various and sometimes curious: Trump, Sanders, Farage, Iglesias, Tsipras, Le Pen, Hofer, and more.  While differing in many policies, they share common ground that boils down to the slogan, “Disconnect!”.

Examples of insurgent policies include:

  • Disconnection from human networks through anti-immigration initiatives.
  • Disconnection from governance networks such as leaving the EU or abandoning free trade agreements.
  • Disconnection from production networks through support for localised production, and disincentives to globalised production.
  • Disconnection from – or at least restrictions on – capital networks through tax and other financial controls.
  • Disconnection from geo-political networks through increasing reticence for overseas military intervention.

There are many other policy examples: British disconnection from international development networks; French disconnection from the euro; etc.

Who is this coming from?  Setting aside the catalysis and aspirations of individual leaders, there are differences but also similarities between the demographics of those disconnecting from the right and those disconnecting from the left[2].  Right-wing disconnectors tend to be older, poorer, less-well-educated; left-wing disconnectors the reverse. But they appear to have two things in common: they are more often from the ethnic majority, and they are more often men.

We can understand these people in terms of positional network geography (see earlier discussion).  Rarely excluded from key global networks, instead these are people who perceive themselves – or can be persuaded to perceive themselves – as adversely incorporated, peripheralised in those networks.  They see a network core that benefits at their expense; they see new, mobile members seeking to join their network and potentially displace them.  For those who are white men perhaps there is particularly a gap between the promise or expectation of benefitting from the growth of global networks, and a perceived reality of not doing so.

As the complexity of the networks into which we are connected grows, and as the number of our network connections grows, we become increasingly connected into contexts that are too complex to either understand or control.  Yet we demand that our politicians control these uncontrollable networks.  And this takes place in an environment of growing digital politics in which form matters more than content.

Combine these two and we encourage the confident assertion of simple solutions: on the right, disconnecting from global flows of labour; on the left, disconnecting from global flows of capital; both disconnecting from global governance networks.

This is reminiscent of the disconnections of the 1920s following the shock of the First World War.  Remind me, how did that work out?

[1] MGI (2016) Digital Globalization, McKinsey Global Institute, San Francisco, CA


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