The dual power of big data
In sub-Saharan Africa, mobile phones number in the hundreds of millions, and they are so popular in countries such as Nigeria and South Africa that the percentage of people with mobiles is comparable to Europe and the United States. With every call, or with every search for information, they produce data, and when the data of millions of people collects over time, this "big data" can provide dramatic insights into human patterns and human lives.
This vast flow of information generated daily by human activities offers enormous opportunities to manage health epidemics, threats to food security, monitor the environment and predict the outcomes of climate change – providing they are adequately collected understood and processed.
Kenyan entrepreneur Leonida Mutuku offered a sharp vision on the usefulness of big data during a roundtable titled "Global Challenges: Is Big Data the Answer?" held at the annual event Trieste Next, in Trieste, Italy. For example, she said, big data could help farmers to achieve better control over their crops by anticipating potential climate damages.
Mutuku, the co-founder and CEO of Intelipro, a Kenyan consultancy that builds data products and analytical tools for financial and retail organizations, also added: "Despite great enthusiasm, big data use in Africa also poses some risks. And one is certainly exclusion of people who lack technology and resources to exploit their potential."
The roundtable was organized by TWAS and was among the opening events of the 2016 edition of Trieste Next, an international science festival launched in 2012 with the Academy serving as both a partner and a co-organizer. TWAS's roundtable also featured Claudio Sartori, a full professor of information processing systems in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering (DISI) of the University of Bologna, Italy. Italian journalist Alessandra Ressa chaired the event.
The three-day Trieste Next event, held 23-25 September, was titled "Human post-human. Towards homo technologicus" and attracted an audience of about 45,000 people.
What is big data? It is "the vast flow of information produced daily by human activities," Mutuku explained. "By using cell phones and credit cards, through government records, purchase transaction records, sensors for climate forecasts as well as medical activities and many others we produce every day an enormous amount of data." This information is close to 2.5 quintillion bytes of data (one followed by eighteen zeros, 1018), and according to estimates, it will peak to 40,000 billion of billions by 2040.
"Big data is also our 'like' on social media, our tweets and videos," noted Sartori. "Every day the world produces more than 1,000 billion tweets, 370,000 billion emails, and shares more than 30 billion posts and likes on Facebook."
"And using big data or exploiting its potential in a fruitful way calls for adopting innovative methods of collection, management and analysis that rely on modern technologies," he added. Each transaction creates electronic tracks that are collected by private or public companies. Having access to these data offers an important resource to analyse and monitor behaviours and preference of the public. And, of course, a potentially powerful tool to shape their buying decisions or other behaviour.
Nonetheless, a lot of hype is surrounding the world of big data, especially in Africa, where there are many potential applications that developing countries should consider when it comes to prioritizing projects and investing on capacity building. "People who can collect and manage data have a very powerful resource in their hands," Mutuku confirmed. At TWAS's roundtable, the Kenyan entrepreneur offered an overview about the use of big data in Africa. She explained why it would be important in the years ahead to make substantial investments in this emerging field, to support development and healthy communities.
"Major environmental crises, droughts, Ebola's spread as well as the earthquake that hit Nepal recently can all be addressed through big data," she said. "This would be especially important in Africa, where many countries still tend to prioritize other targets." Big data may also accelerate interventions to solve crisis.
"In Ethiopia, we have used big data to ensure that food was distributed at the right time and in the right place where it was really needed," Mutuku explained. "Also in West Africa, during Ebola epidemics, a lot of humanitarian organizations have used big data to track the spread of this infectious disease and sent medical aid to fight it."
Big data come in big volumes, at millions databytes per second. Unfortunately, oftentimes they are like a jungle: they may have been collected in different ways, and for different purposes, such as to make profit or business. Hence they might not be comparable unless we use algorithms to interpret and put them in place. In Sartori's view, that may give advantage to interests who can afford the powerful technology needed to sort, save and share big data.
"We need to learn how to use big data in the correct way, avoiding misuse," Sartori warned. He offered a provocative suggestion: if possible, always pay cash when buying foods or leisure items. Why? To avoid potential abuse of information that can be collected by big companies any time of a day. Big multinational retail corporations manage more than one million transactions per hour (2.5 petabytes of data): a valuable treasure that they collect, with deep lessons that they can try to implement. "Marketing strategies impact on everything we do," Sartori pointed out. And they easily create so-called "induced needs”, which customers tend to follow.
As an example, he mentioned a store that might lure customers by offering unnecessary items with a major discount, simply because store dealers know the customers' preferences. "That's why, when it comes to managing big data, it is critical to ensure that we safeguard the final customers, so that privacy and personal rights are not in danger."
In general, awareness of the importance of big data is rising in Africa. According to the Africa Data Consensus, a document endorsed and adopted in March 2015 during the High Level Conference on Data Revolution held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, "... a sustained data revolution is needed to drive social, economic and structural transformation in every African country."
Since the start of the 21st century, Africa has scored impressive economic growth and development; innovation and technology are on the rise, supported by broad adoption of mobile technology. There are currently 314 active tech hubs in the whole continent, in 93 cities and 42 countries, with South Africa on top of the list, followed by Egypt and Kenya.
"My company is currently helping farmers to buy seeds and fertilizers," Mutuku explained. "However, it's difficult to give them credit if they don't have regular records of sales, because sometimes it takes several months to sell the merchandise. So how, then, are we able to decide that this farmer can or cannot afford to pay back?"
By using weather data, mobile data, crop cycles and other kinds of data, experts can forecast with greater accuracy the productivity of farms in a given region. That, in turn, allows them to forecast whether the farmers will have good crops – and the cash flow to pay back loans.
A challenge, especially in Africa, is that one solution does not fit all countries. There is also the risk that some communities could be marginalised because they do not have access to modern communication technologies or financial means to sustain training and costs that big data require.
"Governments are more committed than in the past, now," Mutuku confirmed. "But we need to invest in infrastructure to bring down the costs of Internet access, to enable more entrepreneurs to take advantage of the cloud and the opportunities of the Internet, using big data to solve problems."
Science and technology have always provided tools that are neither good nor bad, Sartori concluded. "They are just tools that may become bad if we use them in the wrong way."