Data is the new oil: Shaping the digital economy of MENA

18 Dec 2017 10:45h - 12:15h

Event report

[Read more session reports and live updates from the 12th Internet Governance Forum]

The session focused on the impact of the so-called ‘data-driven era’ on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). It brought together different stakeholders from various parts of the region.

The first speaker shared the results of a study about domain names and Internet services in the MENA region. The study shows that less than 1% of global domains are registered in the region, yet the region has 3-5% global Internet users. Of the most commonly used websites throughout the region, only 5% are hosted there. The study also showed that the majority of users prefer to access the Internet in their own language. Yet, the uptake of domain names that are not in the ASCII script is slow. He added two key conclusions. First, domain names do not exist in a vacuum. Second, it is important to offer local language services and local language content.

Mr Walid Al-Saqaf, Senior Lecturer at Södertörn University, Sweden, argued that it is crucial to reflect on the power of data. He highlighted the issue that data generated in the MENA region is used by companies located outside the region, who use it to optimise their services, but it is very often not used to benefit the region itself. This is not sustainable for the region and the region needs to develop its own capabilities of using data. This starts with education and with introducing a new mind-set to the region.

Ms Lise Fuhr, Director General, European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association,  pointed out that there is an expected explosion of mobile phone usage in the region. She highlighted the results of a McKinsey study according to which increased mobile penetration can be linked to increase in GDP. She argues that data protection and privacy are important questions, but that the associated regulations should not hamper innovation.

Ms Ines Hfaiedh, Teacher, specialising in ICT Implementation in Education in Tunisia, started by pointing out that existing jobs are under the thread of disappearing and that there will be much greater demand for high-level skills and Internet literacy in the workforce. She argued that this needs to compel countries in the region to create a learner generation and to train teachers and students to develop 21st century skills. Awareness needs to be raised in the population about privacy issues and online rights. Currently, there is a lack of a national education strategy that focuses on these new skills in Tunisia, and this is something that needs to be addressed if the country is to be ready for the future.

Mr Satish Babu, former President of the Computer Society of India and Free Software activist, stressed that the region has already turned around significantly from a very pessimistic picture. Highlighting one innovate practice, he mentioned that Dubai has announced a currency called m-cash and the related transfer to a 100% blockchain-based model by 2020. Looking at government policies, he argued that Europe has made important steps towards privacy protection and that Middle Eastern governments are trying to play a proactive role in his area as well. He also stressed that the free flow of data has been a great enabler for developing regions.

Ms Hanane Boujemi, Project Manager at Hivos’ Internet Governance Programme—MENA Region (IGMENA), stressed that there is a lot of room for improvement in how the governments from the region are presented at relevant conferences, and how they are able to negotiate on issues meaningful to them. With regards to the role of data in the digital economy, she argued that many governments in the region were quite late in recognising and adapting to the new challenges.

Joining remotely, Mr Jorge Sebastiao, CISSP, ICT Expert, Cloud Practice Leader Huawei, shared his experiences in working with data and highlighted some of the pitfalls – capturing, validating, normalising, analysis, and transporting data – associated with that. He agreed that data can be considered the new oil, but beyond that, asked what companies and other stakeholder need to do to benefit from this. He suggested four points: agile management, multi-modal responses, continuous education and learning, and working towards simplifying complexity.

 By Katharina E Hone