The Hague Colloquium on the Future of Legal Identity

Civil Registration Centre for Development, The Hague and the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, Johannesburg

A Political Economy Approach to the Big Data Revolution in Development

In recent years, a number of international organizations have promoted a ‘Data for Development” (D4D) research agenda. Initiatives such as the UN’s Global Pulse and Orange’s ‘D4D’ Challenge have posited that data scientists can use ‘big data’ (i.e. high volume, digital-born data) to solve ‘developmental challenges’. The ‘Development’ in D4D has been understood primarily as humanitarian development, with the poor characterized as users of developmental solutions or social services. Criticism has focused on the privacy implications. Likewise, D4D business models tend to involve risks and public goods for the poor but business opportunities for companies. There has been little (if any) discussion about the commercial opportunities for African producers, nor the potential for this data to be used for the purposes of industrial policy and economic transformation. The aim of this paper is to urge more explicitly political economy thinking within the growing field of ‘Data for Development’. It has three aims: first, to describe current trajectories within the D4D field for those unfamiliar with the terrain, second, to offer an alternative view of D4D that takes account of the possibilities of economic transformation and third, to use the case of Rwanda to highlight the importance of looking at power and political context when assessing big data’s developmental potential.

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The Hague Colloquium on the Future of Legal Identity