Big Data: A Force for Positive Social Change in Developing Economies

In Kampala, the capital city of developing Uganda, operates the largest dataset on microfinancing for the poor and unbanked. Grameen Foundation, a survey platform, has set up an AppLab with tools to make use of information stemming from its clients’ microfinance transactions and related information flows. This helps them form predictive patterns to solve the problems of the population living on less than $2 a day. The AppLab has formed agricultural information-sharing networks, aided by community knowledge workers. Two mobile-based information apps make up their platform: ‘CKW Search’ provides information on livestock, crops, and weather; and ‘Pulse messaging’ generates popup survey questions, syncing clients’ questions and answers over the web. Grameen Foundation thus checks clients’ farms’ performances and evaluates its agricultural Program, tracking the quantity and type of requests by region and identifying local problems.  

This is just one example of how big data can create positive social change in developing economies by facilitating information sharing. New interactive platforms are emerging in growing markets, enabling citizen participation and providing a unified space for collaborative data harvesting. This use of big data is important today, now more than ever, because as economies emerge, they discover problems unique to their path of development. Agriculture, irrigation, services – no matter what sector is driving the economy’s development, data-driven discoveries promote a continuing process of dialogue and feedback that speeds up the growth process. Grameen foundation was able to identify a new crop pest due to an unusual volume of new keyword searches in a particular region and then generate an early warning signal so that the pest was contained and dealt with before it could spread. The deterioration of Agriculture, central to Kampala’s economy, was pre-emptively evaded because of the use of data.  Simultaneously, social patterns were identified to aid citizens directly. Using its dataset, the app identified that women are the ones actively involved in active farming, while men travel to markets to sell products due to which they are often targeted by merchants who encourage them to spend their earnings on consumer products. The Foundation thus set up and marketed a savings product for men at market time, helping them save money. Many such platforms which are lean, yet multifaceted and readily available to low-income groups are central to the significance that big data is gaining in lesser-developed countries, where the population is generally poor.  

However, with such extensive data-sharing, comes the requirement of multiple forms of data protection and consent, which is sometimes severely lacking in developing countries’ legal framework. In such times, it becomes important for the information receivers themselves to regulate and protect the information they are collecting, seeing as governance changes take time. Although large dataset operators like Grameen use standardized agreements and share none of their clients’ data to protect privacy; with a lot of other databanks, storage and processing issues may arise with sensitive data. Given that the cloud is often the cheapest place for organizations to store and manage their data, there is a large scope for things to go wrong and data ownership to be challenged.  

However, the positive impact generated by big data in developing economies can easily outweigh the issues of data protection by exploring new formats for educating people about privacy/ data protection risks. Checklists for use of datasets which are used by corporations and the UNGP can be extended to databanks as well. Leadership within the tech community in emerging economies is also required to think critically about existing standards which may not be adequate or contextual to the varying demographics that exist in the developing world. Civil society groups, an omnipresent force for change, should become a part of the conversation about the power of data. 

It is inevitable that those seeking to promote positive social change will engage with big data, as it is understood more and more through new sources of digital datasets. Different levels and types of data analysis can intersect and inform each other, and international and national-level projects may cross-fertilise and inspire each other; for instance- Grameen Foundation’s work has now spread across a lot of Africa. With necessary accountability and transparency, information sharing through big data can offer new insights into the needs of citizens in growing economies. 

This article was written by Alyssa Nagrath, currently a student at the London School of Economics and Political Science, pursuing BSc Finance.


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