There’s clearly no shortage of excitement and promise about the ways that big data can be applied to meet the world’s challenges. This “Data Revolution” – as declared by the United Nations, the World Bank and many others – provides an unparalleled opportunity to rethink how we approach innovation and social impact. Often described as the “new oil” of the global economy, data has the potential to more effectively include, engage and ultimately impact all facets of society. The possibilities are exciting, but the data revolution also presents enormous challenges and responsibilities: some evident, some predicted and others yet to be known.
It’s Not Only About The Data
When it comes to the potential of the data revolution, we often miss a key takeaway: it’s not just about the data. For those who do not analyse, count, or code ‘data’ for a living, raw data may not be that useful or meaningful. However, broader insight can be drawn from how individuals and groups engage with and use information that is derived from data.
Risks, Ethics, and Responsibilities
It is time for the “data revolutionaries” to do some honest self-reflection. We need to scrutinize some of the key assumptions shaping this data revolution. Do we really understand the risks, benefits and impacts of data supported information and insights? What about those who ‘own’ their data? For starters, does everyone in the data ecosystem have the capacity and opportunity to understand what the data are indicating? What assumptions have been made during analysis and communication? What data truly resonate at local community and individual levels?
To ensure that the promise of this data revolution results in empowerment, more inclusive processes need to be advanced that enhance the ability of individuals and communities to make better decisions for themselves. To embrace local context, we need to revisit approaches that introduce the “illiterate” to the techniques and vocabulary of data. Above all, we need to meet people where they are and listen.
If the data revolution is to succeed, it needs to transform into a more networked, inclusive process, where all actors and elements of the system are engaged and interconnected – especially the most vulnerable individuals and communities. The question is not what data “we” think “they” need to be happy and successful. Rather, it is how we provide communities with the means and mechanisms to design, build and maintain data-driven systems that are tailored to individual and community needs. It is time to own up to the ethics and responsibilities of data-driven development. Are we ready?
Amanda Noonan is Director of Research, Design and Innovation for Internews and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Data-Driven Development Global Agenda Council
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