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Data Misuse is a Timeless Problem in Development

By Guest Writer on November 17, 2022

responsible data

In the research paper, “Datafication, Power and Control in Development: A Historical Perspective on the Perils and Longevity of Data“, Katarzyna Cieslik and Dániel Margócsy argued that a long-term historical perspective is necessary to properly analyse the promises and potential of big data in relation to sustainable development.

Building on critical data studies, they showed that existing approaches mistakenly frame datafication as a novel phenomenon, driven by the recent advances in information and communication technologies.

Data Misuse is Timeless

European states have relied on large-scale data sets for managing their colonies at least since 1500, and they never failed to provide utopian narratives that claimed these efforts would bring tangible benefits to the populations affected.

History has seen again and again how governments and agencies resort to the large-scale collection of data (including data on the private lives of people) and their mathematical analysis to drive development. Arguably, the persistent decoupling of colonial datafication and recent datafication processes is both deliberate and political.

Positioning current datafication as a new and original phenomenon comes with a promise of a positive, technology-driven social change. Regrettably, this line of thinking also dominates the current policy approaches, advocating for open data schemes within the public policy domain.

Based on the historical findings and discussions in this article, they urge scholars and practitioners to approach such proposals with caution. Their cases illustrated that data are virtually imperishable. Once collected, it acquires a life on its own. Against this background, their historical perspective also provides a caveat against proposed solutions that want to control the power of multinational corporations by returning ownership of data to national governments.

Data is Property of People

They propose to see data as the special property of people that can only be alienated temporarily, for strictly defined purposes within a strictly defined time frame, similar to data use in medical studies. Such a strong limit seriously curtails what governments and corporations can do with aggregated data and may block both positive and negative developments without discrimination.

Yet if one is seriously concerned about the potential abuses of data, such an approach should be put out on the table and it should be considered alongside other proposals that lay emphasis on other aspects of datafication. And if their historical case studies have served a purpose, it was to show that one should be seriously concerned.

The lightly edited conclusion of Datafication, Power and Control in Development: A Historical Perspective on the Perils and Longevity of Data” by Katarzyna Cieslik and Dániel Margócsy 

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One Comment to “Data Misuse is a Timeless Problem in Development”

  1. Enabling local stakeholders to reclaim their narrative and control over their data is Datastake’s primary mission.

    Regrettably, it continues to be a hard sell with many development institutions.

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