The following is a response to the High-Level Panel Session ‘Big Data for Humanity‘ hosted by The Peace Informatics Lab (Leiden University), in cooperation with the Leiden Centre of Data Science, New World Campus and Leiden University Campus The Hague and held on Monday 18th August at Leiden University Campus The Hague, Netherlands.


Never before have we had access to so much information, and never before have we had the tools to analyse these enormous bodies of data. Big Data, as it has been coined, is a term that is thrown around rather casually by companies and organisations wishing to show how cutting edge they are. In reality few deal with true Big Data. For those who do, and for those of us on the receiving end of these mass analyses there are a number of questions that need to be addressed, particularly in regard to who controls the data, and what their intentions might be.

One hundred hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, 50 billion Whatsapp messages are sent and received every day, and there are 1.01 billion active Mobile Facebook users – These are truly incomprehensibly large numbers, however, when each of these interactions, and many more like them, are cross tabulated against geo-location, time of day, population statistics, gender, age, amount of time spent on line, and a thousand other parameters that are collected each time you logon to the web, then we have truly Big Data.

Much of the media focus around Big Data has been primarily engaging with the debates over privacy. Stories of the NSA, GCHQ and other spying organisations using this data to track and follow the lives of hundreds of thousands of persons have caused international outrage, although it might be noted that there has been little in the way of public outcry. A counter rational comes in the form of Big Data for Humanity, to borrow from the Universiteit Leiden panel discussion. The panel, consisting of UN, World Economic Forum, NGO and Academic representatives presented a case for how Big Data can be used to support humanitarian work and enhance people’s lives, both in the Global North and Global South.

The panel: Robert Kirkpatrick United Nations Global Pulse (Director) William Hoffman Data Driven Development, World Economic Forum (Associate Director) Mark Nelson Stanford Peace Innovation Lab (Co-Director and Fouder) Jaap van den Herik Leiden Centre of Data Science, Leiden University (Director) Caroline Kroon Open Development, Cordaid (Senior Corporate Strategist)
The panel: (From left to right) Mark Nelson Stanford Peace Innovation Lab (Co-Director and Fouder), Jaap van den Herik Leiden Centre of Data Science, Leiden University (Director), William Hoffman Data Driven Development, World Economic Forum (Associate Director), Caroline Kroon Open Development, Cordaid (Senior Corporate Strategist), Robert Kirkpatrick United Nations Global Pulse (Director)

The panel cited many concrete examples of using Big Data for Humanity, such as using an analysis of how often people use, or add credit to their phones to predict areas of poverty, or combing text interactions for key words that might suggest an outbreak of disease or a rapidly deteriorating security situation, before official reports have been made. Beyond the bounds of the internet, UN Global Pulse is researching ways to pick out key words in phone calls made to radio stations – still a primary communication tool in many places – for similar ends. Taking a more abstract example Mark Nelson of Standford University’s Peace Innovation Lab put forward the notion that products such as AirBnB and Uber are truly diplomatic and peace building tools, creating value across borders that reduces conflict and form mutually beneficial engagement. The main product of these applications he argues is trust – trusting someone else to drive you, trusting someone else in your home – this building of trust between persons who are often not in their home country is a greater tool of diplomacy than any embassy has ever managed to achieve. To borrow the rather over used words of Mark Twain “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness”, and building a trusting relationship while traveling must be all the more fatal, even if facilitated by digital media.

Moreover, these companies, through the masses of data collected at each transaction, now have a better idea of the interactions, movements and habits of those using their services than any border agency could dream of. Each of these connections are related to hundreds of other nodes, and from these it is possible to ascertain where friendships where born, where cultures clashed or came together and many other sociologically interesting assumptions about peoples’ travel and social actions.

This is where big data throws up a number of as yet unanswered questions, and where the panel appeared to flounder in their analysis of the subject. We are now without doubt fully emerged into what Fritz Machlup called a Knowledge Economy, with companies being valued not by their physical product outcomes, but rather by the potential of the knowledge and data they hold. This move has, and continues to shift the boundaries of power on a global scale, and as Robert Kirkpatrick from UN Global Pulse noted, is creating a new digital divide.

Western powers, or the Global North, have long been placed in a position that allowed for the ultimate exploitation of the poor South. A position previously maintained through ongoing war, and aggressive foreign policies in order to provide maximum benefits to the oppressors. While this position presently remains, there is another force that is operating outside of governments and traditional big industries which is opening space for new power structures. Companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter already have more active users than most countries have people, and as they reach their maximum levels of penetration in the ‘developed’ world, they seek new markets. Within this knowledge economy it make sense for these companies to open their products for free to the global south. Through free Wi-Fi balloons, drones and $25 smartphones these companies are increasing their user base in the developing world hugely, and this has significantly closed the traditional digital divide, and continues to do so.

A new divide, however, is taking its place and this divide is being perpetuated by governments, companies and many unwitting NGOs. It perhaps is obvious to suggest that governments are now keen to exploit Big Data, both at home and abroad, for their own personal, and nationalist, gains. As William Hoffman of the World Economic Forum stated, ‘Politian’s use Big Data to get elected, but not to govern’. Companies too are of course expected to use Big Data for their financial gains, which manifests itself most clearly in the form of targeted adverts and services. And while it is important to remain vigilant to the way in which this data is used by companies, serious breaches of trust around Big Data will be self-defeating for most corporations.

More concerning is the rush of Governments, NGOs and INGOs to embrace Big Data as the be all and end all of Development and global governance. As touched upon above, Big Data has to potential to help target aid resources and to reach communities that might perhaps not have been reached before, but at what cost? If we move to a position where we sit behind our super computers analysing the phone calls of the world’s poor and then dictating to them the kind of aid they need we are no better than those who have come before us. By moving to a Big Data fueled International Development model we pull the rug once again from under the Global South. Just as the digital divide begins to close, we now use Big Data tools to ensure a new gulf is created and that the hegemony of the Global North remains true; the power of knowledge, and all that comes with it, continues to the held in the Global North.

Big Data has the potential for many things that will improve many peoples’ lives, both in the North and South. It must however, always be remembered that knowledge is power, and we must always be very aware of who holds that power when we are dealing with Big Data, both the power to generate and to analyse the data. We need not be afraid of big data, but we must not allow it to be used to help desperate and outdated governments and international organisations cling to power through the commodification of knowledge. Furthermore, when discussing how Big Data can be used to help humanity it is important not to reduce the people involved to little more than nodes in a database, direct interaction between peoples, in which the value of local knowledge is given a level playing field is invaluable to true development work.

Big Data for Humanity was the title of the debate that sparked this piece, but I wonder if a better title might have been, Big Data: Where’s the Humanity?