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5 Unanswered Questions on Expanding Digital Economies in Developing Countries

By Denise Phelps on May 11, 2015


Recently, the Technology Salon in Washington DC asked if Digital Economies Will Empower or Enslave the Next 4 Billion Mobile Users? While there was a general recognition of the lack of digital literacy, and the disadvantages people face when trying to understand the costs and benefits of having an online presence, opinions were split on whether digital economies would be inherently good or bad.

Out of the discussion, we identified five key questions about going online, and the agency of people that do.

1. What are the implications of having a digital ID?

Collecting data from online platform users was described in the Salon as the “digital extractive industry”. It was argued that industry gets more from the data the consumer provides than from the consumer gets from the service they subscribe to. In most cases, when new users first come online and get a digital ID through a website here is a lack of understanding about what information they are sharing and what rights they are giving up. Industries are gathering data from people and selling it to companies that want to target this emerging market of people, which makes the data in a developing world context a jackpot because there is less information on them in comparison to countries like the US.

2. Who is accountable for data?

Currently there is little accountability for how data is managed and how information is shared on social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter. In the discussion it was pointed out that as platforms manipulate their design and alter how a site functions, this affect how peoples’ information is shared and how they interact with the site. As a result, there are often unintended repercussions.

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In comparison, humanitarian and development organizations have always been data driven, and to an extend much more responsible about the data they collect. However this information collection has been centered on making the project better, and has not been “user driven”. While data is becoming more open and available, there is disconnect between having open data that’s useful to organizations and open data that is relevant and useful to the communities it was collected from.

The accountability between Facebook and a development organization is different, yet they both have a certain disregard for the consumer. While companies like Facebook sell consumers data for marketing, development organizations extract data to show program results to donors.

3. Who has agency and control over information?

Currently there is no recognition of a person’s ownership of their information, once it has been “extracted”. The EU is in the process of changing this by setting a new standard via its data protection regulation that is in the final stages. Among other things, it affords individuals the right to “be forgotten” and have information about them removed from search engines that is no longer relevant. Is it possible with development to have the notion of an individual project constituent being “forgotten”?

4. Is data collected from mobile phones and applications any different than any other technology?

One side argued that because establishing an online identity is not a physical object, and it is tied to other services, digital IDs are inherently different than any other technology. Purchasing a car was used as the comparison to explain how with a physical object you have more control over how it is used and you aren’t required to sign up for other services just to use it. In comparison if you sign up for a Facebook account, it isn’t just a Facebook account you get, but your data is automatically shared with other industries, and Facebook itself attempts to track your activity across the Internet.

5. What are the limitations of the current structural system?

One key insight from a participant was that, “Technology scales what human intention has already created.” The technologies themselves are neither good nor bad but how they are used in the social, political, and economic systems that we’ve created determines their inherent “goodness”.

People expressed a desire to improve the way data is collected and refocus on the actual needs and desires of communities. Several people mentioned the importance of anthropological studies in understanding and evaluating community’s strengths and weaknesses from an insider’s perspective. However the current program structure is deadline focused and uses rapid assessments, rarely allowing for the lengthy studies that would be ideal to gauging communities’ desires. It is clearly a top down, not bottom up, system. What steps can be taken to better inform communities about how their data is used and engage with them, within our current system?

The future of data

The event concluded with Salon participants brainstorming on actions they can take to effect the way data is used in their work, and how they can impact the data extraction industry. That leaves a final question: What can you do to impact the role of data and the digital economy?

If you’ve read this far, shouldn’t you sign up to get invited to the next Salon?

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Written by
Denise Phelps is an international health communication and ICT4D consultant.
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