The rush for data risks growing the North-South divide

Laura Mann and Gianluca Lazzolino at SciDevNet: “Across the world, tech firms and software developers are embedding digital platforms into humanitarian and commercial infrastructures. There’s Jembi and Hello Doctor for the healthcare sector, for example; SASSA and Tamween for social policy; and M-farmi-CowEsoko among many others for agriculture.

While such systems proliferate, it is time we asked some tough questions about who is controlling this data, and for whose benefit. There is a danger that ‘platformisation’ widens the knowledge gap between firms and scientists in poorer countries and those in more advanced economies.

Digital platforms serve three purposes. They improve interactions between service providers and users; gather transactional data about those users; and nudge them towards behaviours, activities and products considered ‘virtuous’, profitable, or valued — often because they generate more data. This data  can be extremely valuable to policy-makers interested in developing interventions, to researchers exploring socio-economic trends and to businesses seeking new markets.

But the development and use of these platforms are not always benign.

Knowledge and power

Digital technologies are knowledge technologies because they record the personal information, assets, behaviour and networks of the people that use them.

Knowledge has a somewhat gentle image of a global good shared openly and evenly across the world. But in reality, it is competitive.
Simply put, knowledge shapes economic rivalry between rich and poor countries. It influences who has power over the rules of the economic game, and it does this in three key ways.

First, firms can use knowledge and technology to become more efficient and competitive in what they do. For example, a farmer can choose to buy technologically enhanced seeds, inputs such as fertilisers, and tools to process their crop.

This technology transfer is not automatic — the farmer must first invest time to learn how to use these tools.  In this sense, economic competition between nations is partly about how well-equipped their people are in using technology effectively.

The second key way in which knowledge impacts global economic competition depends on looking at development as a shift from cut-throat commodity production towards activities that bring higher profits and wages.

In farming, for example, development means moving out of crop production alone into a position of having more control over agricultural inputs, and more involvement in distributing or marketing agricultural goods and services….(More)”.