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Monday, August 31, 2015

Africa can leverage big data to drive equitable prosperity

Every time you use your mobile phone, every time you make a purchase with your Visa or MasterCard, and every time your drive beneath a street camera, data is created. However, to imagine that Africa is awash with data and information would be simplistic and fallacious.

Huge data challenges persist in our part of the world. For example we don’t know how many children are stunted or suffer from chronic malnutrition. We don’t have accurate information on the number of children enrolled in school or out of school. We don’t really know how many young people are unemployed. We don’t know what skills our economy needs. We don’t have data on the number of Kenyans who don’t have access to water and sanitation. We don’t know how many people are killed on our perilous roads every year. We don’t know how many tons of maize our farmers produce annually.

Africa’s conversation on big data and the information revolution is characterized by both promise and anxiety. The dialogue is characterized by promise because the ubiquity of modern technology such as cellphones permits novel ways for problem diagnosis and application best-fit solutions. The dialogue is characterized by anxiety because while the world is on the cusp of a veritable data and information revolution, Kenya and Africa at large exist in what can be characterized as a pre-dawn mist.

At the heart of the pre-dawn mist is the fact most of the data we hold are best guess estimates, which are often unreliable. Moreover, even this unreliable data is often out of date, and riddled with huge spatial and temporal gaps. This makes it difficult to apply any analytical tools to examine the data for patterns and insights that could support policy or investments or provide new insights to drive sustainable development.

Despite the pre-dawn mist, the opportunity for Africa to leverage the ubiquity of technology to bridge data gaps, harness big data and advances in modern computing and data analytics are phenomenal. Big data is commonly understood to encompass high volume, high variety and high velocity knowledge and decision-support assets.

Africa’s big data opportunity has been enabled by the proliferation of media usage, especially cellphones and the explosion of Internet connected devices and systems. We have also witnessed, thanks to broadband Internet, an unprecedented eruption of unstructured data in the form through photos, videos and social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Government agencies hold or have access to an ever-increasing wealth of data including spatial and location data. Moreover, private sector, especially mobile telephone service providers like Safaricom and Airtel also hold huge amounts of data about its customers.

The power of big data and data analytics and its application in decision-making really lies in the capacity to predict, model and detect phenomenon. Hence, incorporation of big data and data analytics in intelligent systems could vastly improve delivery of public services in domains ranging from education, wildlife conservation, public health, road safety, agriculture, climate change adaptation, counter terrorism, tax collection, and utilization of public revenue. Furthermore, Big data and data analytics through open data access have the potential to dramatically enhance democracy, accountability and promote inclusive and equitable development. 

In my view, the potential of big data to drive Africa’s prosperity will only be realized if we answer the following questions. First, how can novel technologies and the everyday innovations in how the world is documented and monitored be applied to bridge critical gaps in data? Second, how can the under-resourced national statistics departments in a majority of African countries be supported to collect, manage, analyze and share data? Third, how do we bring data from mobile devices and social media platforms into public use without infringing personal freedoms or violating individual privacy? Last but not least, how can data be standardized, shared across organizations (public and private), mashed-up and integrated to support policy analysis, investment, public accountability and enhance service delivery?

Africa’s development in the 21st century and beyond must be based on evidence ­­­­– reliable integrated data and knowledge on Africa’s complex challenges and opportunities, not on expatriate conjecture and whim or dodgy government statistics. 

Moreover, Africa must address the data deficit challenge and, build the necessary capacity for sophisticated big data analytics that enables prediction, modeling and pattern detection, which is critical if big data is to drive enduring and equitable prosperity.

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