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It is a common view for most countries that advanced technologies like big data, the Internet, and communication infrastructure can be used to promote economic growth and the well-being of the citizens. Nowadays, most developing countries are still struggling to bridge the ‘digital divide’. In the coming decades, big data undoubtedly will be the driving force for transforming the world and cross border data services will develop the knowledge for responding effectively to the risks and opportunities of society and economic development. This session addressed the developmental, legal, and technical issues raised by the increasing concentration of data. It took a closer look at the incentives of all stakeholders involved and put forward a feasible approach to ensure equitable access to the dataset.
What are the principles of big data for sustainable development? Mr Liu Chang (China Association for Science and Technology, Chinese Institute of Electronics) presented the Nairobi Data Sharing Principles in developing countries which stipulate that data should be open and unrestricted, free to the end-users, informative and assessed for quality, easy to find and access, interoperable, and sustainable. Data sharing should be timely; data contributors should be given credit; data access should be equitable; and data may be restricted for a limited time if adequately justified. Ms Daisy Selematsela (Executive Director, University of South Africa, UNISA Library and Information Services) reminded everyone of the five main pillars of the sustainable development goals (SDGs): people, planet, partnership, peace, and prosperity. In order to achieve these goals by 2030, it is important to revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development.
Why do data and big data matter for the SDGs and how can data exchange and big data help us meet the 2030 goals? Mr Wisdom Donkor (President and CEO, African Open Data and Internet Research Foundation, Ghana) reminded everyone that the SDGs call for tracking progress at global, regional, national, and sub-national levels. Their overarching goal is to leave no one behind. The SDGs also provide indicators for global monitoring and thematic monitoring. For this to be done, robust data production and tracking system are required. This includes every country so that that achievements at the national and local levels can be assessed and fit into the wider global framework. In order to do that certain aspects should be considered: a) strengthening sensors and surveys through looking critically at censuses to know how data is collected and used, b) utilising the administrative data particularly in Africa where most data are underused and fitting the data into rational policies is still problematic, c) adopting citizen-generated data approaches and evidence-based decision-making, funding, and capacity building, d) encouraging the use of data to empower citizens, and e) strengthening the data ecosystem and addressing some of the relevant challenges for big data.
What are the opportunities provided by big data and what is the role of the private sector? Mr Cherif Diallo (Professor, Gaston Berger University, Senegal) elucidated that the data revolution is advancing in competing and data science now makes it possible to process and analyse big data in real-time. The integration of this new data with traditional data produces high-quality information. Data collected by the private sector will help predict epidemics and the movement of people. Thus, big data analysis can help in saving lives. For example, it is possible to improve road safety by using information collected from mobile operators. In the medical field, data can be used to identify genetic and non-genetic factors for the manifestation of certain diseases. Nonetheless, capacity building and education are crucial for big data to help achieve the SDGs. In this vein, fostering and promoting innovation are required to fill the data gaps and finding and mobilising research is important to overcome inequalities between developed and developing countries and between data-poor and data-rich people. However, this will not happen without leadership and co-ordination to enable data regulation to play its full role in the realisation of sustainable development.
Broadly speaking, what are the challenges to big data for sustainable development? One of the panellists, an information scientist from Germany replied to this question by identifying some of the underlying challenges, such as new semantic methods which are not supported at the moment in adequate ways. In addition, information management efforts need to cope with the complexity of actors and organisations involved. With regard to the SDGs, the technical definition of the indicator system is also problematic. Following a top-down approach could also be tricky because ideally, one would move from basic data to aggregated results as part of the indicator framework. There is a myriad of insights to be found in databases and these need to be made operable to provide complete comprehensive, objective, trustworthy information to all actors. At the same time, it is important to include investigative data journalism to verify data. Yet, another challenge is data integration based on accepted information infrastructure concepts and comparable to the existing complex implementations.
A substantial part of the discussion centred specifically on the advantages of big data for education. Mr Ricardo Israel Robles Pelayo (Law Professor, Escuela Bancaria y Comercial, Mexico) explained that it is necessary to create laws that promote the use of information obtained from big data to enhance the quality of the education and to celebrate multilateral agreements to exchange data with other countries in Latin America and the international community. This legal framework should also provide the safeguard of personal data and the provision of quality education in developing countries required to improve the quality of life in society. Thanks to big data, academic institutions can obtain personalised information from students to improve education services. Similarly, Ms Enas Hafez (Ministry of Education, Tunisia) pointed to some of the benefits of using big data for education. These include (a) big data provides a numerical representation of academic resources and outcomes; b) it offers the ability to focus on specific groups of students, i.e. fast learners, slow learners, students with disabilities; c) it helps assessing how effective certain education policies and initiatives are; d) the adoption of technologies can improve the effectiveness of test score data analysis; and e) the academic records and tests results and grades help educational institutions to produce tailored courses and to see what is trendy and what is interesting for the students for them to follow at university.
Finally, there was agreement on the importance of education, particularly for big data to be able to achieve the SDGs. Education for school students, university students but also scientists and technical and administrative people on the uses of big data is needed. Partnerships are also important between different stakeholders but also between developing and developed countries. In this regard, some of the global initiatives that promote big data were highlighted including the World Bank’s Open Data Initiative and the International Aid Transparency Initiative.
By Noha Fathy