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How Can We All Profit From Development Data?

By Josh Woodard on March 18, 2015


Big data has been called the new oil, and it is easy to see why. In its raw form, it provides limited value, but with the right refinement it has the potential to generate enormous value to the global economy. As with oil, it is also those with the most sophisticated machinery—in terms of the most powerful network of processors and algorithms—that are most likely to extract the greatest amount of wealth from the world’s zettabytes of digital data.

While the majority of that data is currently from the world’s mature markets, in the next three years data from emerging markets are estimated to take the lead.

Data and Development

As development practitioners we collect vast amounts of personal data from people in some of the most remote corners of the globe. Until recently, most of that data sat on a hodgepodge of laptops and servers and very rarely were made publicly available. This is all set to change as more donors embrace the idea of open data—most recently with the release of USAID’s Open Data Policy last year.

The combination of this wealth of publicly available data combined with ever more powerful processors and algorithms to analyze that data will bring with it significant amounts of direct and indirect benefits to most of the world’s population, as well as some real potential for harm.

One of the questions we should be asking ourselves as development practitioners is whether the benefit people get from the use of big data plus the benefits they receive from any project that collects their data minus any potential costs to them is proportionate to the ultimate profit generated from using their data? And if not, what is our responsibility to those individuals to ensure that they are getting a fair deal?

Development Data Value

We are already worth about $45 per year to Google and (a still paltry) $7 to Facebook, figures that could well continue to rise. Both Google and Facebook offer us free services in exchange for the value they extract for us. What is the potential value that will be extracted by data mining and analytics firms that offer the people we work with nothing in exchange for the profit that they might realize from analyzing and selling their data, even if just in the aggregate?

So here’s a bit of radical idea for your consideration. Just as Alaska had the foresight to establish its Permanent Fund Dividend, which pays all established residents a lump sum each year from oil revenues, perhaps we should be promoting the establishment of an Open Data Dividend that pays all individuals whose data we have collected and made publicly available a return proportionate to the value extracted from it.

The practicality of such a paying out such a fund is hard to imagine, although that may change sooner than we think as digital payment mechanisms begin to make micro-payments more feasible.

Or if this is not feasible in the short-term, do we at least have an obligation to ensure that we’re not habitualizing the people we work with to giving away all of their data for free to whoever asks, particularly given that an increasing portion of the world’s wealth will be generated as a result of big data for the indefinite future?

Filed Under: Data, Thought Leadership
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Written by
Josh Woodard is the co-founder of Civi, a civictech platform connecting people across the aisle, as well as a senior digital advisor at USAID. You can find more of his writings on his personal site and occasionally via his LinkedIn feed
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