The Data for Development Debate - How can data availability, data usage and data responsibility drive development?

Four experts on digitalisation – Linus Bengtsson, Executive Director of the Flowminder Foundation; Andreas Pawelke, an independent consultant; Nicola Jentsch, head of the Stiftung Neue Verantwortung; and Stuart Campo, a researcher at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative – engaged in a debate over the actual value of digitalisation for the global fight against poverty. The high level of interest in this session pointed to both the increasingly important role of digitalisation in many GDC programmes – and to the desire for a critical appraisal of its benefits and risks.

At the start of the session, the moderator established a ‘baseline’: a poll of those present showed that opinion was evenly split between those who believed that that the data revolution can improve the lives of the poor and those who did not. Each side of the debate then brought its arguments. Bengtsson and Pawelke, arguing ‘for’ the benefits of digitisation, provided a range of examples illustrating how digitalisation enhances the collection of data needed to plan and implement interventions which benefit the poor. This includes everything from using satellite imagery to estimate the population density for vaccination campaigns in remote or conflict-affected areas to the use of drone technology by villagers in Indonesia to monitor and protest deforestation and illegal logging.

While acknowledging the power of the data revolution, Jentsch and Campo took a much more skeptical approach, arguing that the rich will be better off and the poor will become poorer. They warned that, in the competition for market share, private companies are not sufficiently concerned with the security and privacy of consumers’ personal data. The same is true in the context of development projects piloting digital solutions. ‘We would argue that the ethical obligations of the development sector are not being met,’ said Campo. Under the banner of innovation, too many digital projects are launched and run without considering ethical risks and implications.

In response to the moderator’s closing question, about what GIZ can do to make digitalisation work in development contexts, the panelists agreed that, rather than introducing further digital tools, GIZ is well-placed to support partner governments in developing regulatory frameworks. Where GIZ is already involved in introducing new digital instruments, Campo urged those present to make data protection and privacy a priority and to follow through on it – rather than just going ahead and assuming that tricky data protection questions will somehow get solved on the way: ‘We all know this attitude of building the plane while you’re flying it. This doesn’t work here. Before you introduce something in one of your projects, ask yourself: Would I want to use this at home? If you aren’t sure, it’s a sure sign that you should stop.’

When the moderator re-polled the audience at the end of the session, it again yielded a tie between the two positions. When asked if anyone changed their minds in the course of the debate, many people raised their hands. Clearly, the four panelists got people thinking. This debate needs to continue.

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