Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Big data and the assembly of global insight out of small scale, local and micro-local data 7: reconsidering the digital divide 1

Posted in business and convergent technologies, reexamining the fundamentals, UN-GAID by Timothy Platt on January 23, 2014

This is my seventh installment to a series on big data and how wide-ranging and even globally significant insight can be developed out of small-scale local and even micro-local data (see Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time 2, postings 265 and loosely following for Parts 1-6.)

I wrote in Part 5 of intrinsically closed-access big data systems and of the potential that their proliferation would bring in creating have and have-not disparities. And I wrote there of how knowledge is power and of how big data-enabled knowledge and insight are becoming increasingly important as sources of power. I then wrote in Part 6 of open and publically connecting and enabling big data systems and how they are arising. But they can only be available to those who live on the have side of any digital divides still in place and globally, digital divides are still very real and very significant.

I write this posting with recent experience in East Africa, and more specifically in northern Tanzania in mind. See my recently completed series: Developing Critical Infrastructure from a Human and a Societal Perspective (at United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (UN-GAID) as postings 16-21 for Parts 1-6 of that.) In a real sense this posting is both a continuation of this big data-oriented series that I explicitly list it in, and of that series too.

As a matter of both public will and government policy, the diverse peoples of Tanzania with their 130 separate tribes, seek to more effectively and competitively enter into the world around them. This goal has its business-oriented side that translates directly into terms of increased international trade and commerce, and strengthened national and local economies. But the Government of this country and its educational system also seek to bring computers and internet access into their classrooms and into the lives of their citizens to more fully bring Tanzania into the larger global community – while preserving and maintaining the living vibrancy of their own diverse cultural identity.

The digital divide per se is usually viewed primarily and even exclusively as a technological challenge, and it is just as commonly analyzed for possible remediative solutions in terms of strictly technological answers. There are significant technological issues that have to be addressed in bridging any technology-based access gap, but these challenges are at least as much societal problems as technology ones. And just throwing technology at them and without regard to its human and societal impact can only create push-back and resistance, from ignoring the larger set of critically involved issues that constitute the context for any such implementation.

If you try to impose a technology solution to a have-not community without regard to its cultures and traditions, you run the risk of at least seeming to be willing to override them and their cultural identities. You run the risk of presenting yourself as a challenge to them and to their sense of identity and value. This is a particularly valid source of concern where infrastructure and technology transfer involves information and communications technology and the opening up of new forms of access to outside cultures and perspectives, with all of the outside-sourced informational content and opinion that comes with that. And this brings me back to a phrase that I added to this posting in a previous paragraph: “… while preserving and maintaining the living vibrancy of their own cultural identities.”

• Big data is all about big content, as a flexibly organizable body of raw and processed data that can be used to assemble new forms of insight.
• Any such assemblage of data is going to carry at least something of a cultural imprint and even a cultural bias from where it was sourced and from those who assemble it,
• As specific data and types of data are selected for inclusion and as metadata assembled from ongoing use of these resource bases is added into them.
• Data assemblage and knowledge developed from it always carry at least something of a cultural imprint from those who assemble it, and from those have already used it and who have added to it as a result.

As such:

• It is necessary to plan and develop approaches for spreading access to resources such as big data in ways that can fit into existing recipient infrastructures.
• And it is equally important that you understand where it is going to be necessary to build infrastructure from scratch, and how to most cost-effectively to do that – and with the needs and capabilities of the have-nots you are trying to reach taken into account as a crucial consideration there.
• But any viable solution towards bridging a technological gap and particularly one like the digital divide has to be planned and developed with active support from and involvement of the people who you would bring this to
• And at all levels, from the highest strategic planning level down to boots on the ground and hands-on implementation – with involvement at that level that one of the most important points if you are to make this new technology infusion sustainable and for the people who will now own it.

I wrote at some length of cultural awareness and its implications in my Developing Critical Infrastructure series as cited above. I note here in that context that big data and the potential for development of have and have-not distinctions in access to it, holds potential for making current digital divides both deeper and steeper, and that much more difficult to close. So it is crucially important that societal efforts be made to do so early – now.

The faster the pace at which technologically based opportunity arises and diffuses out through have societies, the more pronounced and disruptive and intractable, have and have-not divides for it become and the greater the opportunity for misunderstanding and for conflict. Big data, in this, can be seen as both a next generation step in advancing opportunity and enablement and a next step in potential separation and even divisiveness – unless access barriers are understood and addressed from early on.

I am going to continue this installment with a discussion of how cell phone proliferation in developing countries such as Tanzania can create a bridge to access to and acceptance of big data capabilities, and particularly as publically facing and involving big data develops as a local and hyper-local search and sharing phenomenon. Meanwhile, you can find this series and other related material at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time 2 and also in my first Ubiquitous Computing and Communications directory page. And I also include this series in my directory: Reexamining the Fundamentals and in United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (UN-GAID).

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