Artificial Intelligence and the Need for Data Fairness in the Global South

Why it’s time for better agreements on access to data for developing countries

Academic and industrial reports generally agree that there will likely be a widespread embracement of Artificial Intelligence-based business in Latin America, which raises the question of negative human impact. Some research suggests that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will demonstrably increase unemployment rates. However, the complete replacement of humans by Artificial Intelligence is not realistic; rather, human-machine collaboration will give birth to a new field of digital business based on “intelligent services”.

courtesy of flickr

New opportunities will arise, boosting revenue and creating new jobs. The so-called 4th Industrial Revolution, term used by Klaus Schwab, encourages data collection through digitization with the understanding that data is a resource essential to success in any software-based Industry. The impact of AI is up for debate. One way or the other, the profitability of big data has led companies to aggressively seek out the next billion data harvesting field — fields that can be found and exploited in developing countries.

However, the complete replacement of humans by Artificial Intelligence is not realistic; rather, human-machine collaboration will give birth to a new field of digital business based on “intelligent services”.

The data collected by industry represents AI opportunities for governments, to improve their services through innovation. Data-based intelligence promises to increase the efficiency of resource management by improving transparency, logistics, social welfare distribution — and virtually every government service. E-government enthusiasm took of with the realization of the possible applications, such as using AI to fight corruption by automating the fraud-tracking capabilities of cost-control tools. Controversially, the AI enthusiasm has spread to the distribution of social benefits, optimization of tax oversight and control, credit scoring systems, crime prediction systems, and other applications based in personal and sensitive data collection, especially in countries that do not have comprehensive privacy protections.

There are so many potential applications, society may operate very differently in ten years when the “datafixation” has advanced beyond citizen data and into other applications such as energy and natural resource management. However, many countries in the Global South are not being given necessary access to their countries’ own data.

courtesy of flickr

Useful data are everywhere, but only some can take advantage. Beyond smartphones, data can be collected from IoT components in common spaces. Not restricted to urban spaces, data collection includes rural technology like sensors installed in tractors. However, even when the information is related to issues of public importance in developing countries —like data taken from road mesh or vital resources like water and land — it stays hidden under contract rules and public citizens cannot access, and therefore take benefit, from it. This arrangement keeps the public uninformed about their country’s operations. The data collection and distribution frameworks are not built towards healthy partnerships between industry and government preventing countries from realizing the potential outlined in the previous paragraph.

The data necessary to the development of better cities, public policies, and common interest cannot be leveraged if kept in closed silos, yet access often costs more than is justifiable. Data are a primordial resource to all stages of new technology, especially tech adoption and integration, so the necessary long term investment in innovation needs a common ground to start with. The mismatch between the pace of the data collection among big established companies and small, new, and local businesses will likely increase with time, assuming no regulation is introduced for equal access to collected data.

From the “Reworking the revolution — Accenture Strategic” Report

Data gathered in mass collection needs to be considered an element necessary to cooperation and growth of wealth across fields, not only as a competitive advantage to big industry. The Global South needs the right to negotiate for access to strategic data, as should its countries be able to protect their citizens’ privacy regardless of whether they have a data infrastructure or not.

Data gathered in mass collection need to be considered an element necessary for cooperation and growth of wealth across fields, not only as a competitive advantage to big industry. The Global South needs the right to negotiate for access to strategic data and to protect citizens’ privacy.

Mariana Mazucatto, the Director of UCL’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, attests that when governments are responsible for long term investment, they must set mechanisms to socialize the risk AND the revenues. Mazucatto uses the example of big winners using technology funded by the U.S. government; however, this example fits in the data issues when we realize that data are a common resource that should be considered as a resource by governments.

Data collection frameworks need more discussion and refinement — not just privacy agreements, but also access negotiation. Agreements on the extraction of data must take into account economic and social benefits for the countries where the data is being extracted. This is only fair.

Partnerships agreeing to data extraction and commercialization need more transparency and regulation, and data must be seen as a common asset.

Currently, data independence remains restricted to discussions on the technological infrastructure that supports data extraction. Privacy discussions focus on personal data rather than the digital accumulation of strategic data in closed silos — a necessary discussion not yet addressed. The national interest of data is not being addressed in a framework of economic and social fairness. Access to data, from a policy-making standpoint, needs to find a balance between the extremes of public, open access and limited, commercial use.

A final, but important note: the vast majority of social media act like silos. APIs play an important role in corporate business models, where industry controls the data it collects without reward, let alone user transparency. Negotiation of the specification of APIs to make data a common resource should be considered, for such an effort may align with the citizens’ interest.

It is not merely a matter of transparency, but of fair cooperation (Wael Ghonim, Washington Post article)

These, and other issues, are going to be discussed at a workshop about Data Fairness in the Global South, in September 21, 2018* at Harvard Kennedy School.

*this post was updated to reflect the new dates of the workshop.

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(Acknowledgements: thank you to Talia Gifford, Research Assistant Intern, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School)