Havard StrandNnenna Nwakanma, Web Foundation

The new oil, the new soil, the new nuclear power. There is plenty of room for debate about the role that data plays in today’s world. Whichever your favoured metaphor, it’s clear that data will have a profound impact on the development of societies in the coming years. The question for us is: How do we make sure that our data future is forged not by and for the few, but by and for everyone? This must start with participation.

The promise of data

At the Open Government Partnership (OGP) summit held this month in Tbilisi, Georgia, the number of conversations centred on the role of data in promoting better governance was striking. Whether combating corruption, increasing citizen engagement or driving budget transparency, data — particularly open data — is a leading focus of the open government movement.

In the development sector too, there are hopes that more and better data will offer opportunities to improve decision-making, open up meaningful citizen participation, and raise the bar for service delivery. A recent Web Foundation report looks at how agencies working in international development can leverage data to better meet people’s needs.

Perhaps most exciting are the thousands of grassroots data initiatives springing up across the world, with citizens finding creative ways to access and use data to improve their lives and their communities. One project I’ve been involved with is TechMousso, an initiative in Côte d’Ivoire that brought together data, tech and gender communities to use public data to develop solutions to local problems around women’s health, safety, education and economic empowerment. Another project, studied by our Open Data Lab, saw villagers in West Kalimantan, Indonesia who, unable to access official government data, built drones to collect aerial mapping data. They used this data to expose mining companies that were causing environmental damage and violating land rights — leading the companies to be held accountable.

Connectivity is key

I arrived at the OGP summit in Georgia from Russia and left Georgia for Burkina Faso, all the while tracking commonality. I was in Russia for the FIFA World Cup and, for the most part, I had wifi in the trains in Moscow. In Tbilisi, I had great internet connection down-valley in the city and up on the mountain at the Funicular, where my meetings were held. Today, I am in Burkina Faso, where 1GB of data will cost me about 10 USD, which is about 15% of national minimum salary. What I can say for sure is that all data initiatives have one thing in common: they require connectivity. Whether through apps, online portals or raw data downloads, people need to be able to access the internet and hardware in order to engage. Simply put, if you’re not online, you’re excluded from the data revolution.

How big is this barrier? Later this year, for the first time, we will cross the 50% connectivity threshold. While this 50/50 moment is a significant milestone and something to celebrate, it’s a reminder that while we rush to unleash the benefits of data, half the world is at risk of being left behind.

Of course, those still offline are not evenly distributed. They are largely concentrated in countries that would stand to benefit most from the potential of data to boost development, governance and innovation. While 81% of people living in developed countries use the internet, according to ITU stats, this figure drops to 41% in developing states and a mere 17.5% in least developed countries. This access gap amplifies existing inequalities, channeling digital benefits to those already most empowered.

Just developing an internet infrastructure is not enough. Madagascar was recently cheered for having some of the fastest internet speeds in the world. But with widespread poverty and patchy provision of physical infrastructure like electricity, just 2.1% of the population is actually online. Is a gold-plated internet for the few really something to celebrate?

The cost to connect

In so many countries, data remains too expensive. In Malawi, for instance, 1GB costs over 20% of an average person’s income. In Zimbabwe, it’s almost 45%. The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) has set a ‘1 for 2’ target — 1GB of data for no more than 2% of average monthly income. Until countries hit this target, most people will remain offline.

Some groups are disproportionately affected by high costs. A new Web Foundation report looking at why open data isn’t working for women in Africa, found that in addition to the usual barriers to using open data, women face a host of additional economic obstacles, such as low pay and time poverty, preventing them from accessing the web and digital technologies. We must work to understand the ways various groups are left out and find ways to ensure they are included, not further marginalised.

Data for everyone

For all the promises of open data, civic tech, data for governance, artificial intelligence and digital empowerment, unless we ensure that everyone is included, these efforts will fall short. The first step is to get the next 50% of the world connected to the web as quickly as possible. But connectivity is only the beginning of the story. We need good quality data that is open and free to access. We need citizens, policy makers and civil society with the skills to leverage it. We need thoughtful companies that pay attention to the risks as well as the opportunities of data and care about their customers’ welfare.

Data for tomorrow

As I tie up my fieldwork in Burkina Faso and begin to focus on Dubai for the second World Data Forum, I am tasking myself to bring the connectivity issue to the table. I have a session on data advances in Africa. We will be exploring the extent to which the data revolution is playing out in Africa. I am also particularly interested in the discussions around citizen-generated data, the implementation and use of data at sub-national levels, and the capacity challenges of the data ecosystems, especially in Africa. How can communities collaborate on data for the SDGs? Are communities able to do so? What will it take? Who will take it? If data is to be a driving force of the Sustainable Development Goals and of 21st century life, let’s ensure that it works for everyone and we leave no one behind.

Nnenna Nwakanma advocates for open data, open government and the open web across Africa, working with a number of partner organizations. She represents the Web Foundation at various international fora, and is a member of the Programme Committee for the UN World Data Forum 2018.