Big data analysis from the Center for Internet and Society

Posted on February 6, 2016  /  0 Comments

As befitting an article on BIG data, the writer of this piece, done for Center for Internet and Society, is liberal with superlatives.

A colossal increase in the rate of digitization has resulted in an unprecedented increment in the amount of Big Data available, especially through the rapid diffusion cellular technology. The importance of mobile phones as a significant source of data, especially in low income demographics cannot be overstated. This can be used to understand the needs and behaviors of large populations, providing an in depth insight into the relevant context within which valuable assessments as to the competencies, suitability and feasibilities of various policy mechanisms and legal instruments can be made. However, this explosion of data does have a lasting impact on how individuals and organizations interact with each other, which might not always be reflected in the interpretation of raw data without a contextual understanding of the demographic. It is therefore vital to employ the appropriate expertise in assessing and interpreting this data. The significant lack of a human resource to capital to analyze this information in an accurate manner poses a definite challenge to its effective utilization in the Global South.

While appreciating the effort, I have two small quibbles.

(1) If interpretation requires contextual understanding, is it not important that this work be done in situ in the places where the data is generated and where the potential of the users are located? If yes, we should put our shoulders behind efforts to develop such capabilities, as LIRNEasia has done. Instead, it seems most of the energy, even of developing-country actors, is being channeled into speculative exercises that seek to preclude imagined negative outcomes. I am reminded of the hypocritical US position that precludes the World Bank from supporting low-cost coal and hydro projects in the developing world on ecological grounds, while making full use of those technologies domestically.

(2) The author states: “The legal and technological implications of using Big Data are best conceptualized within the deliberations on protecting the privacy of the contributors to this data. The primary producers of this information, from across platforms, are often unaware that they are in fact consenting to the subsequent use of the data for purposes other than what was intended.” Why is privacy the only legitimate frame? And why is privacy presented as a settled artifact anchored on “inform and consent”?

Marginalization is a serious issue. With regard to the old modality of collecting data for public policy, the work of National Statistical Organizations, it is commonplace to talk about those may not be be counted and will therefore be deprived of public services and representation. Why is that not a legitimate frame for discussing big data?

Competition is an equally important policy concern. If some entities know about their customers and potential customers, thanks to data analytics, and other do not, can there be a “level playing field”? If government or utility data are not equitably made available, can those at different points of the value chain compete?

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