The New Digital Divide: Transforming the Global South into Reliable Data

Transforming the world's most hard-to-access and uncertain landscapes into digital data. Sutika Sipus 2014.
Everyday urban professionals, data scientists, economists, and geographers sit in front of a computer screen and create extraordinary visualizations and statistical methods to unravel the world.  Geographic information systems such as QGIS, statistical programs like "R", spreadsheet softwares like Excel and lines of python code have empowered us with the ability to understand economies at scale, measure and predict public health, monitor pollution and deter violence.  Data is good.

Yet what about cities, states, and nations that do not or cannot generate reliable data?  In his recent book, Poor Numbers, author Morten Jerven reveals the faulty statistics collected and published by government agencies throughout Africa.  Over the last three years that I was in Afghanistan, I witnessed nearly every single aid agency or government research contractor rely upon "perception based" data which means researchers confronted too much danger in the field to collect actual information, but could only ask locals their opinion on matters ranging from conflict to education and corruption.  This method is safe but provides zero validity.  It might as well be make-believe.

The result is the global data gap.  Governments and institutions that can transform intangible social dynamics into quantifiable data can conduct sophisticated analysis and move forward at a faster pace. This sensibility was the foundation of my initiative in Mogadishu, to create a comprehensive map of the city that fused business and residential management with geography.  As my operation was too small to go beyond the proof of concept, the vision was eventually passed via the local government and integrated into a longstanding UN initiative to develop a city planning department which is advancing with some success.  Yet while Mogadishu may be on the cusp of a digital governance revolution, problems persist.  Data dies.  Situations change.  More dramatically, very little of the world is generating the data sets commonly enjoyed throughout the west.

The global data gap is economically inhibitive. Imagine if your company sought a new market opportunity because the markets your normally serve are saturated with your product and your competitors.  Most companies would never imagine distribution in an African nation, partly because of misled beliefs on stability of those markets, but that those misconceptions are ultimately founded on a lack of reliable data.  With no local data, there is no global opportunity.

This is also a failure for companies that already working in data-deficient nations.  A few months ago I had a meeting with Afghanistan's largest tele-communications provider, Roshan, and when I asked about coverage, they could only give vague feedback.  When I asked for data on every household using Roshan to access the internet in Kabul, they could not give this information because Kabul doesn't have a postal address system, so all installations are tied to a person's name and neighborhood, but not a specific address.  In this instance I created alternative solution, where after about three weeks of combing selected neighborhoods, I was able to generate a GPS location for every Wi-Fi network and mobile tower in each area which could then be joined with the existing data.  We could filter Roshan networks vs competitor networks and now had sufficient data to improve marketing and coverage strategies.

Location and evaluation of strength of Wi-Fi access in Kabul, Afghanistan. Sutika Sipus 2014.
Having worked throughout Africa and Asia as a researcher since 2007,  I have developed an array of techniques to get past this problem, focusing on the creation and testing of indirect indicators.  In Zimbabwe economic wealth could be measured by counting the number of water jugs in front of each house.  In the Philipines, one could count denim jeans swinging on the clothesline of an apartment.  In a variety of Somali refugee camps I found that metal roofing materials separated the less-poor from the more-poor.  In Afghanistan I have steadily been testing and re-testing the presence of graffiti as a predictor of social protest and conflict with success.  The advantage of these Rapid Rural Appraisal techniques is that they are safe, fast, efficient, and quantifiable.  To determine an RRA indicator requires extensive time on the ground, but once established, we can effectively measure anything, anywhere.  There are of course other methods, standard survey techniques, but my efforts generate GPS location, culturally relative valuation, and easily shared outcomes.  RRA is not new, but my method of fusing RRA with traditional research methods, GIS tools, and mobile technologies does create a new outcome. I produce valid, quantifiable and mappable data that is customized to the problem and the location, but can accommodate different scales.

Digital Data Collection and Mapping.
Cambodia. Sutika Sipus 2014.
To me, the global data gap is a new frontier of untapped opportunity.  Maybe more people will realize this sooner than later and I'll encounter some digital cowboys, wandering deserts with laptops and satellite phones, their backpacks sagging beneath the weight of external hard drives.  I won't be the only one canvasing the worlds most remote locations.

Maybe soon more companies will ask "what about Nigeria?  what about Ghana or Bangladesh?" and they will need answers.  They will look online and see some global statistics that are 5 years old and impossible to trust.  They will need a fresh perspective they can trust and they can see.  Something they can drop into their software and understand.  Good thing I'm easy to find.