The scramble for Africa’s data

Mobile phone advert in Zomba, Malawi
Africa is in the midst of a technological revolution, and the current wave of digitisation has the potential to make the continent’s citizens a rich mine of data. Intersection in Zomba, Malawi. Image by john.duffell.


After the last decade’s exponential rise in ICT use, Africa is fast becoming a source of big data. Africans are increasingly emitting digital information with their mobile phone calls, internet use and various forms of digitised transactions, while on a state level e-government starts to become a reality. As Africa goes digital, the challenge for policymakers becomes what the WRR, a Dutch policy organisation, has identified as ‘i-government’: moving from digitisation to managing and curating digital data in ways that keep people’s identities and activities secure.

On one level, this is an important development for African policymakers, given that accurate information on their populations has been notoriously hard to come by and, where it exists, has not been shared. On another, however, it represents a tremendous challenge. The WRR has pointed out the unpreparedness of European governments, who have been digitising for decades, for the age of i-government. How are African policymakers, as relative newcomers to digital data, supposed to respond?

There are two possible scenarios. One is that systems will develop for the release and curation of Africans’ data by corporations and governments, and that it will become possible, in the words of the UN’s Global Pulse initiative, to use it as a ‘public good’ – an invaluable tool for development policies and crisis response. The other is that there will be a new scramble for Africa: a digital resource grab that may have implications as great as the original scramble amongst the colonial powers in the late 19th century.

We know that African data is not only valuable to Africans. The current wave of digitisation has the potential to make the continent’s citizens a rich mine of data about health interventions, human mobility, conflict and violence, technology adoption, communication dynamics and financial behaviour, with the default mode being for this to happen without their consent or involvement, and without ethical and normative frameworks to ensure data protection or to weigh the risks against the benefits. Orange’s recent release of call data from Cote d’Ivoire both represents an example of the emerging potential of African digital data, but also the challenge of understanding the kind of anonymisation and ethical challenge that it represents.

I have heard various arguments as to why data protection is not a problem for Africans. One is that people in African countries don’t care about their privacy because they live in a ‘collective society’. (Whatever that means.) Another is that they don’t yet have any privacy to protect because they are still disconnected from the kinds of system that make data privacy important. Another more convincing and evidence-based argument is that the ends may justify the means (as made here by the ICRC in a thoughtful post by Patrick Meier about data privacy in crisis situations), and that if significant benefits can be delivered using African big data these outweigh potential or future threats to privacy. The same argument is being made by Global Pulse, a UN initiative which aims to convince corporations to release data on developing countries as a public good for use in devising development interventions.

There are three main questions: what can incentivise African countries’ citizens and policymakers to address privacy in parallel with the collection of massive amounts of personal data, rather than after abuses occur? What are the models that might be useful in devising privacy frameworks for groups with restricted technological access and sophistication? And finally, how can such a system be participatory enough to be relevant to the needs of particular countries or populations?

Regarding the first question, this may be a lost cause. The WRR’s i-government work suggests that only public pressure due to highly publicised breaches of data security may spur policymakers to act. The answer to the second question is being pursued, among others, by John Clippinger and Alex Pentland at MIT (with their work on the social stack); by the World Economic Forum, which is thinking about the kinds of rules that should govern personal data worldwide; by the aforementioned Global Pulse, which has a strong interest in building frameworks which make it safe for corporations to share people’s data; by Microsoft, which is doing some serious thinking about differential privacy for large datasets; by independent researchers such as Patrick Meier, who is looking at how crowdsourced data about crises and human rights abuses should be handled; and by the Oxford Internet Institute’s new M-Data project which is devising privacy guidelines for collecting and using mobile connectivity data.

Regarding the last question, participatory systems will require African country activists, scientists and policymakers to build them. To be relevant, they will also need to be made enforceable, which may be an even greater challenge. Privacy frameworks are only useful if they are made a living part of both governance and citizenship: there must be the institutional power to hold offenders accountable (in this case extremely large and powerful corporations, governments and international institutions), and awareness amongst ordinary people about the existence and use of their data. This, of course, has not really been achieved in developed countries, so doing it in Africa may not exactly be a piece of cake.

Notwithstanding these challenges, the region offers an opportunity to push researchers and policymakers – local and worldwide – to think clearly about the risks and benefits of big data, and to make solutions workable, enforceable and accessible. In terms of data privacy, if it works in Burkina Faso, it will probably work in New York, but the reverse is unlikely to be true. This makes a strong argument for figuring it out in Burkina Faso.

Some may contend that this discussion only points out the massive holes in the governance of technology that prevail in Africa – and in fact a whole other level of problems regarding accountability and power asymmetries. My response: Yes. Absolutely.

Linnet Taylor’s research focuses on social and economic aspects of the diffusion of the internet in Africa, and human mobility as a factor in technology adoption (.. read her blog). Her doctoral research was on Ghana, where she looked at mobility’s influence on the formation and viability of internet cafes in poor and remote areas, networking amongst Ghanaian technology professionals and ICT4D policy. At the OII she works on a Sloan Foundation funded project on Accessing and Using Big Data to Advance Social Science Knowledge.

Time for debate about the societal impact of the Internet of Things

European conference on the Internet of Things
The 2nd Annual Internet of Things Europe 2010: A Roadmap for Europe, 2010. Image by Pierre Metivier.
On 17 April 2013, the US Federal Trade Commission published a call for inputs on the ‘consumer privacy and security issues posed by the growing connectivity of consumer devices, such as cars, appliances, and medical devices’, in other words, about the impact of the Internet of Things (IoT) on the everyday lives of citizens. The call is in large part one for information to establish what the current state of technology development is and how it will develop, but it also looks for views on how privacy risks should be weighed against potential societal benefits.

There’s a lot that’s not very new about the IoT. Embedded computing, sensor networks and machine to machine communications have been around a long time. Mark Weiser was developing the concept of ubiquitous computing (and prototyping it) at Xerox PARC in 1990.  Many of the big ideas in the IoT — smart cars, smart homes, wearable computing — are already envisaged in works such as Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital, which was published in 1995 before the mass popularisation of the internet itself. The term ‘Internet of Things’ has been around since at least 1999. What is new is the speed with which technological change has made these ideas implementable on a societal scale. The FTC’s interest reflects a growing awareness of the potential significance of the IoT, and the need for public debate about its adoption.

As the cost and size of devices falls and network access becomes ubiquitous, it is evident that not only major industries but whole areas of consumption, public service and domestic life will be capable of being transformed. The number of connected devices is likely to grow fast in the next few years. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that while a family with two teenagers may have 10 devices connected to the internet, in 2022 this may well grow to 50 or more. Across the OECD area the number of connected devices in households may rise from an estimated 1.7 billion today to 14 billion by 2022. Programmes such as smart cities, smart transport and smart metering will begin to have their effect soon. In other countries, notably in China and Korea, whole new cities are being built around smart infrastructuregiving technology companies the opportunity to develop models that could be implemented subsequently in Western economies.

Businesses and governments alike see this as an opportunity for new investment both as a basis for new employment and growth and for the more efficient use of existing resources. The UK Government is funding a strand of work under the auspices of the Technology Strategy Board on the IoT, and the IoT is one of five themes that are the subject of the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS)’s consultation on the UK’s Digital Economy Strategy (alongside big data, cloud computing, smart cities, and eCommerce).

The enormous quantity of information that will be produced will provide further opportunities for collecting and analysing big data. There is consequently an emerging agenda about privacy, transparency and accountability. There are challenges too to the way we understand and can manage the complexity of interacting systems that will underpin critical social infrastructure.

The FTC is not alone in looking to open public debate about these issues. In February, the OII and BCS (the Chartered Institute for IT) ran a joint seminar to help the BCS’s consideration about how it should fulfil its public education and lobbying role in this area. A summary of the contributions is published on the BCS website.

The debate at the seminar was wide ranging. There was no doubt that the train has left the station as far as this next phase of the Internet is concerned. The scale of major corporate investment, government encouragement and entrepreneurial enthusiasm are not to be deflected. In many sectors of the economy there are already changes that are being felt already by consumers or will be soon enough. Smart metering, smart grid, and transport automation (including cars) are all examples. A lot of the discussion focused on risk. In a society which places high value on audit and accountability, it is perhaps unsurprising that early implementations have often been in using sensors and tags to track processes and monitor activity. This is especially attractive in industrial structures that have high degrees of subcontracting.

Wider societal risks were also discussed. As for the FTC, the privacy agenda is salient. There is real concern that the assumptions which underlie the data protection regimeespecially its reliance on data minimisationwill not be adequate to protect individuals in an era of ubiquitous data. Nor is it clear that the UK’s regulatorthe Information Commissionerwill be equipped to deal with the volume of potential business. Alongside privacy, there is also concern for security and the protection of critical infrastructure. The growth of reliance on the IoT will make cybersecurity significant in many new ways. There are issues too about complexity and the unforeseenand arguably unforeseeableconsequences of the interactions between complex, large, distributed systems acting in real time, and with consequences that go very directly to the wellbeing of individuals and communities.

There are great opportunities and a pressing need for social research into the IoT. The data about social impacts has been limited hitherto given the relatively few systems deployed. This will change rapidly. As Governments consult and bodies like the BCS seek to advise, it’s very desirable that public debate about privacy and security, access and governance, take place on the basis of real evidence and sound analysis.

Papers on Policy, Activism, Government and Representation: New Issue of Policy and Internet

We are pleased to present the combined third and fourth issue of Volume 4 of Policy and Internet. It contains eleven articles, each of which investigates the relationship between Internet-based applications and data and the policy process. The papers have been grouped into the broad themes of policy, government, representation, and activism.

POLICY: In December 2011, the European Parliament Directive on Combating the Sexual Abuse, Sexual Exploitation of Children and Child Pornography was adopted. The directive’s much-debated Article 25 requires Member States to ensure the prompt removal of child pornography websites hosted in their territory and to endeavor to obtain the removal of such websites hosted outside their territory. Member States are also given the option to block access to such websites to users within their territory. Both these policy choices have been highly controversial and much debated; Karel Demeyer, Eva Lievens, and Jos Dumortie analyse the technical and legal means of blocking and removing illegal child sexual content from the Internet, clarifying the advantages and drawbacks of the various policy options.

Another issue of jurisdiction surrounds government use of cloud services. While cloud services promise to render government service delivery more effective and efficient, they are also potentially stateless, triggering government concern over data sovereignty. Kristina Irion explores these issues, tracing the evolution of individual national strategies and international policy on data sovereignty. She concludes that data sovereignty presents national governments with a legal risk that can’t be addressed through technology or contractual arrangements alone, and recommends that governments retain sovereignty over their information.

Continue reading “Papers on Policy, Activism, Government and Representation: New Issue of Policy and Internet”

New issue of Policy and Internet (2,3)

Welcome to the third issue of Policy & Internet for 2010. We are pleased to present five articles focusing on substantive public policy issues arising from widespread use of the Internet: regulation of trade in virtual goods; development of electronic government in Korea; online policy discourse in UK elections; regulatory models for broadband technologies in the US; and alternative governance frameworks for open ICT standards.

Three of the articles are the first to be published from the highly successful conference ‘Internet, Politics and Policy‘ held by the journal in Oxford, 16th-17th September 2010. You may access any of the articles below at no charge.

Helen Margetts: Editorial

Vili Lehdonvirta and Perttu Virtanen: A New Frontier in Digital Content Policy: Case Studies in the Regulation of Virtual Goods and Artificial Scarcity

Joon Hyoung Lim: Digital Divides in Urban E-Government in South Korea: Exploring Differences in Municipalities’ Use of the Internet for Environmental Governance

Darren G. Lilleker and Nigel A. Jackson: Towards a More Participatory Style of Election Campaigning: The Impact of Web 2.0 on the UK 2010 General Election

Michael J. Santorelli: Regulatory Federalism in the Age of Broadband: A U.S. Perspective

Laura DeNardis: E-Governance Policies for Interoperability and Open Standards

Internet, Politics, Policy 2010: Closing keynote by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger

Our two-day conference is coming to a close with a keynote by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger who is soon to be joining the faculty of the Oxford Internet Institute as Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation.

Viktor talked about the theme of his recent book“Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age”(a webcast of this keynote will be available soon on the OII website but you can also listen to a previous talk here). It touches on many of the recent debates about information that has been published on the web in some context and which might suddenly come back to us in a completely different context, e.g. when applying for a job and being confronted with some drunken picture of us obtained from Facebook.

Viktor puts that into a broad perspective, contrasting the two themes of “forgetting” and “remembering”. He convincingly argues how for most of human history, forgetting has been the default. This state of affairs has experienced quite a dramatic change with the advances of the computer technology, data storage and information retrieval technologies available on a global information infrastructure.  Now remembering is the default as most of the information stored digitally is available forever and in multiple places.

What he sees at stake is power because of the permanent threat of our activities are being watched by others – not necessarily now but possibly even in the future – can result in altering our behaviour today. What is more, he says that without forgetting it is hard for us to forgive as we deny us and others the possibility to change.

No matter to what degree you are prepared to follow the argument, the most intriguing question is how the current state of remembering could be changed to forgetting. Viktor discusses a number of ideas that pose no real solution:

  1. privacy rights – don’t go very far in changing actual behaviour
  2. information ecology – the idea to store only as much as necessary
  3. digital abstinence – just not using these digital tools but this is not very practical
  4. full contextualization – store as much information as possible in order to provide necessary context for evaluating the informations from the past
  5. cognitive adjustments – humans have to change in order to learn how to discard the information but this is very difficult
  6. privacy digital rights management – requires the need to create a global infrastructure that would create more threats than solutions

Instead Viktor wants to establish mechanisms that ease forgetting, primarily by making it a little bit more difficult to remember. Ideas include

  • expiration date for information, less in order to technically force deletion but to socially force thinking about forgetting
  • making older information a bit more difficult to retrieve

Whatever the actual tool, the default should be forgetting and to prompt its users to reflect and choose about just how long a certain piece of information should be valid.

Nice closing statement: “Let us remember to forget!

New issue of Policy and Internet (2,2)

Welcome to the second issue of Policy & Internet for 2010! We are pleased to present six articles which investigate the role of the Internet in a wide range of policy processes and sectors: agenda setting in online and traditional media; environmental policy networks; online deliberation on climate change; data protection and privacy; net neutrality; and digital inclusion/exclusion. You may access any of the articles below at no charge.

Helen Margetts: Editorial

Ben Sayre, Leticia Bode, Dhavan Shah, Dave Wilcox, and Chirag Shah: Agenda Setting in a Digital Age: Tracking Attention to California Proposition 8 in Social Media, Online News and Conventional News

Kathleen McNutt and Adam Wellstead: Virtual Policy Networks in Forestry and Climate Change in the U.S. and Canada: Government Nodality, Internationalization and Actor Complexity

Julien Talpin and Stéphanie Wojcik: Deliberating Environmental Policy Issues: Comparing the Learning Potential of Online and Face-To-Face Discussions on Climate Change

Andrew A. Adams, Kiyoshi Murata, and Yohko Orito: The Development of Japanese Data Protection

Scott Jordan: The Application of Net Neutrality to Wireless Networks Based on Network Architecture

Alison Powell, Amelia Bryne, and Dharma Dailey: The Essential Internet: Digital Exclusion in Low-Income American Communities