Can Big Data save the world?

Saturday 17 October, 12.00 until 13.00, Frobisher Auditorium 1, Barbican Battle over Life and Death

One of the biggest barriers to development in poorer countries has been a lack of good data to inform decisions about everything from the economy to planning and healthcare. The spread of information technology could be a major asset in solving such problems. Access to the internet and to mobile phones has broadened rapidly in recent years, even in the most impoverished countries. Data from these devices could be used in a variety of ways. For example, a team of Belgian researchers was able to show strong correlations between mobile-phone credit purchases and food availability in developing countries. While such data is no substitute for proper surveys of food supply, they could be a cheap and very fast way of identifying potential problems, allowing aid to be supplied before a situation became really serious.

But having lots of data is not the same as being able to use it. The Haiti earthquake in 2010 was the first time social media and satellite mapping using thousands of volunteers around the world came together to provide a wealth of information on the post-disaster situation. According to a UN report, the aid response ‘was not tooled to handle these two new information fire hoses - one from the disaster-affected community and one from a mobilised swarm of global volunteers’. There are other problems, too. If governments gain access to call records, that data could be used as a means of regulating the population or undermining their privacy. On the other hand, a lack of openness can prevent such data from being used. So while social media data is relatively open, and was therefore of great benefit after the Nepal earthquakes, the proprietary nature of mobile phone records prevented these from being used during the Ebola crisis.

There is also always the danger of ignoring problems because data is not available, focusing relief on areas where data has provided a better picture, in effect punishing people for being too poor to have phones and data connections. Moreover, using data to find and ameliorate specific problems may come at the expense of more ambitious solutions, such as the broad-based development that is required to tackle poverty more fundamentally.

How seriously should we take the idea that big data can solve acute and chronic problems in developing countries? Are the gains to be made worth the risk of undermining privacy? How can we prevent a ‘digital divide’ emerging between the poorest countries, where technology is less widely available, and the rest? Has our fascination with data become a displacement activity for the ambitious development required to tackle poverty?

Watch the debate

David Chandler
professor of international relations, University of Westminster; author, Resilience: the Governance of Complexity

Timandra Harkness
journalist, writer & broadcaster; presenter, Futureproofing and other BBC Radio 4 programmes; author, Big Data: does size matter?

Paul Jasper
consultant, Oxford Policy Management – a leading international development consultancy

Dr Marie McIntyre
research associate, Department of Epidemiology & Population Health, Institute of Infection & Global Health, University of Liverpool

Sandy Starr
communications officer, Progress Educational Trust; webmaster, BioNews
Recommended readings
Data 'crucial' to eradicating poverty

The UN’s sustainable development goals can’t be achieved unless more funding goes to data and statistics, says new report.

Sarah Shearman, Guardian, 28 September 2015

A World without Causation: Big Data and the Coming of Age of Posthumanism David Chandler, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 2015

Why we shouldn't get too excited about using big data for development

While digital datasets can be used to track progress towards development, most people on the planet remain cut off from digital technology.

Paul Jasper, Guardian, 22 June 2015

Can big data improve the lives of people in the developing world?

From helping trace the outbreak of epidemics to identifying problems such as food shortages or price hikes, monitoring mobile data can be a powerful tool.

David Benady, Guardian, 11 December 2014

Is Big Data squishing our humanity?

The use of new technologies is turning us into objects of analysis, examination and manipulation.

Norman Lewis, spiked, 15 October 2014

Big Data: big danger?

Should we place limits on data collection to protect individual liberties? Even in areas where data is put to benign use, could over-reliance on algorithms impede the process of human judgement? Is it time to recognise the limitations of Big Data and put the stats in their place?

Battle of Ideas, WORLDbytes

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