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Data Divide—or is it Data Colonisation?

By John Walubengo

It has been slowly happening over the last twenty years, but developing countries haven’t been keen to notice. We do have what is currently called the ‘Data Divide’ though some would want to call it the ‘Data Colonisation’.

The “data divide” refers to the gap or disparity in the availability of data or access to data that exists between different individuals, companies, communities, or countries. The data divide describes the imbalance between the controllers or holders of big data vs the contributors of that data.

A common example of this phenomenon is often exemplified by big tech platforms like Facebook, Google, Apple, Twitter, and others. They collect and mine a lot of data from users without equitably sharing the benefits of the emerging data economy.

Indeed, the rules of capitalism make no apologies for this turn of events since the owners of these digital platforms are taking risks and reaping the subsequent benefits of their investments in innovative platforms and ideas.

Furthermore, platform owners argue that no one is forcing you to remain on their platforms as a subscriber. You are free to disable or delete your account rather than start demanding what they would presume to be imagined digital rights.

However, there is an increasing consensus, particularly from European-based policymakers that the gains arising from user-generated digital footprints could be better shared between the platform owners, their subscribers and the greater public or society.

Equitable distribution of Data Value

This may not necessarily be in terms of monetary compensation, but it could also be in terms of adopting a more ‘open-data’ policy that allows for anonymising and sharing or opening up some of the massive data collected.

For example, online taxi platforms have a fairly good view of what are the most commonly used or preferred taxi routes based on the data that their riders frequently take. Such data, if anonymised and shared publicly, could go a long way in identifying new routes that the public service vehicles could then add to their existing or established routes.

Of course, this may work against online taxi companies since it would invite competition onto their otherwise hidden and lucrative routes.

Perhaps a better source for sharing this traffic data would be for the mobile operators, who traditionally have no interest in the transport industry but sit on a lot of traffic-related data that emanates from our mobile phones signals as we transit to work, play or home.

Incentivising Open-Data Models

Mobile operators have their own local big data ecosystems that they could anonymise and ‘give back to the community’ by making it available to the public or other innovators to do data mining or analytics for the benefit of the greater public good.

By not making such type of data available to other innovators, local and global tech companies continue to accelerate and enlarge the data divide, essentially entrenching the data colonisation phenomena.

Data, unlike oil, is considered non-rivalrous. This means that one can share it, without losing or reducing its stock. Indeed, the value of data is a factor of how many times it is shared, remixed with other data sets and generally repackaged by a greater number of stakeholders.

Of course, there are challenges in terms of which frameworks and incentives that should be put in place to make public and private sector entities benefit from sharing some of their anonymised data for the greater good.

Several models have been proposed including but not limited to creating third-party entities to store and manage the shared data under several legal models such as ‘Data Trusts’, ‘Data Cooperatives’, and ‘Data Collaboratives’ amongst others.

Let’s get this data economy started by unlocking massive data sets currently not shared by both public and private sector entities.


John Walubengo is an ICT Lecturer and Consultant. @jwalu.


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