In one, you wake up in the morning to an alarm clock that’s been tracking the quality of your sleep all night, calculating the optimum time to wake you so that you’re fresh and alert. Your alarm clock then notifies you that it’s signalled your coffeepot to start brewing you a cappuccino. It then reminds you that your wedding anniversary is coming up and asks whether you’d like it to book you a table at your favourite restaurant.
In the other, you wake up as the heat of the sun starts to bake your tin roof. You start your usual morning routine, lighting a wood stove and cooking a bit of cornmeal to see you through the day. You turn on the radio and listen to the local news. You then make your way to the small field of maize that you rely on for your subsistence.
Once you arrive at your allotment, you take out your basic, but functional, smartphone and start tracking how your field is doing. You’ve got real-time data coming in from 10 tiny sensors embedded throughout your field measuring soil temperature, acidity, moisture and nutrient composition. A neat little heat map on your phone lets you know that everything is OK as all the key indicators are green.
In all likelihood, this is what life might look like for many in the year 2030.
We are on the cusp of another wave of disruptive technological innovation as 5G specifications, greater computing power, shrewd algorithms and very cheap internet-connected chips start to congregate around clever business ideas.
If some estimates are to be believed, there’ll be a trillion devices connected to the internet by 2025. The sheer scale of connectivity will mean that our digital footprints will become significantly larger than they currently are, further blurring the lines between reality and cyberspace.
If the snapshots of people’s lives in 2030 above were to materialise, what are the opportunities and risks inherent to those two realities? And, crucially for those of us who work in the data revolution for sustainable development, what are the things we need to start thinking about now to mitigate future risks?
“More connectivity will not reduce the world’s digital divides – in fact, it’s likely to make them worse. Government and activist intervention will be desperately needed to bridge the gaps”
First and foremost, we need to acknowledge that more connectivity will not reduce the world’s digital divides – in fact, it’s likely to make them worse. Government and activist intervention will be desperately needed to bridge the gaps.
Moreover, greater connectivity will not result in the current cyber, digital and data challenges we face vanishing overnight. Without active regulation and planning, risks including personal data misuse, mis- and disinformation, AI bias, etc will continue to plague our societies. These issues will affect both the rich and the poor, but in different ways and to different extents.
The opportunities are self-evident. In higher-income countries, a whole new range of gadgets will make life even more convenient and seamless – for those who can afford them. In poorer parts of the world, there is still huge value in innovating within local markets and improving services.
The benefits from a developmental point of view could be significant. Imagine if the farmer in the second scenario could look at his soil data and have it overlaid – in real time — with high-resolution satellite images, linked to land-registry entries and fed back to policymakers and statisticians. It would be a dream come true for many of us in the data for development world.
However – and it’s a big however – will things really play out this way?
In many low-income countries, the institutional capacity, governance and regulatory infrastructure is either non-existent or insufficient to effectively regulate data-driven innovation – large parts of the world still lack effective data protection legislation.
Without these crucial pieces of the puzzle, it is more likely that large agribusinesses and multinationals will be the primary beneficiaries of the data collected by our poor farmer friend above, rather than he himself. This could then have knock-on effects, for instance, agribusinesses buying up the best land and forcing local populations off it.
In both of the above hypothetical scenarios, data governance issues – questions of control and ownership over data, the right to licence and reuse it, share it, store it, process and analyse it, etc – will be pivotal.
Whether you rely on digital tech to brew you the perfect coffee or help you grow crops, the current global model of data-related innovation largely relies on the absence of regulation and insufficient regard being paid to potential harms to flourish.
Within the sustainable development sector, as the data revolution begins to bear fruit, examples of poor data governance and management are emerging and the cracks are starting to show.
Take, for instance, the concerns that have been expressed about how digital ID systems have been rolled out in India. Or current controversies in parts of the world around the use of facial recognition technologies, which have even resulted in a ban on their use by police in California. Or recent concern around the World Food Programme’s partnership with Palantir and demand to roll out a biometric data system in order to distribute food aid in Yemen. Or Facebook’s planned crypto-currency and its hopes for its application in the non-profit sector. The list goes on.
Essential to changing current dominant data regulation and governance models will be how rights and duties are balanced, a theme explored in documents such as SDSN TReNDS’ recent Counting on the World to Act report.
Returning to the agriculture sector example, some jurisdictions are starting to set standards, with the EU leading the pack with its code of conduct on agricultural data sharing by contractual agreement.
However, the need for contextually nuanced guidance will be far more acute in poorer parts of the world, which are generally starting from a less developed institutional base. Far, far more needs to be done.
“The next major frontier issue in the data revolution is how we collectively agree to govern and share the benefits of the data revolution”
Arguably, the next major frontier issue in the data revolution is how we collectively agree to govern and share the benefits of the data revolution. We have a great opportunity to work towards a rebalancing of power away from distant, privately controlled tech giants, towards vesting control back into the hands of the people from whose data value is extracted.
For those of us working in the data revolution for sustainable development, we have a moral obligation to work towards tilting the balance of power and control over data in this direction through our investments, projects and interventions.
To do this, we need to learn from the evidence around us, which is that, if we don’t take active steps to set standards and regulate technology and data in an inclusive, democratic and rights-based manner, we inadvertently risk further exacerbating the inequalities we hope to eliminate.