Unleashing Africa’s Data Revolutionaries

With 90% of all worldwide data collected in the last two years, the ‘data revolution‘ is upon us. This deluge of data collected through public and private means is truly overwhelming, and governments are scrambling to make sense of our brave new world. The United Nations has assembled a new advisory body to help understand and deliver this data revolution, and publicly championed the role of data in the upcoming Sustainable Development Goals.

Yet much of the debate that I have witnessed first hand seems to overlook the involvement of the communities that the revolution is meant to serve. There is now a genuine danger of a new type of digital divide between those governments and their residents who have the ability to collect and analyse the new data, and those who do not. What kind of revolution is top down and only serving the interest of wealthy governments?

At the same time as these discussions take place the world over, Africa’s young and tech savvy population is getting on with its own practical data revolution. Across the continent – and not just in the 100 plus tech hubs – innovators and entrepreneurs are coming up with solutions to everyday problems by finding new ways of delivering or tracking services.

Last year, we were overwhelmed with hundreds of applicants for our ‘Africa Data Challenge‘, a competition open for people across the world to pitch their ideas for data-driven projects with a practical, human impact in Africa. Young scientists, entrepreneurs, civil servants, journalists and distinguished professors all entered. What’s more, ideas ranged from collecting and sharing local cassava crop disease data in Ghana to launching a citizen cost of living index in East Africa. You could count on one hand the submissions that referenced the ‘data revolution’ in any way.

Our two winning projects, chosen during our #ScienceAfrica UnConference in London, reflected the vast scope of the data revolution. One project showcased the benefit of UK-Africa scientific collaboration; with Bingham University in Nigeria’s Nasarawa State partnering with leading UK group TReND in Africa to run a cutting-edge data analysis programme. More than a decade after the breakthrough sequencing of the human genome, much of the potential benefit for Africa remains bottlenecked by lack of proper data analysis. While its uses have already been demonstrated in malaria research and in identifying and modelling the spread of Ebola, a greater understanding of data sets can help combat future healthcare challenges.

Our second project from the AWP Network focuses on female farming communities in Nigeria and Ghana, as part of its ‘Agropreneur’ programme. Through local partnerships and training programmes in rural villages, the project will develop a series of data collection and sharing platforms to improve yield and reduce food waste. Working with the support of the Ministry of Agriculture, the project will act as a pilot to test local data collection, and, I hope, illustrate the importance of enabling local communities to play their part.

Aside from our winning projects, our Africa Data Challenge has again demonstrated the depth and breadth of ideas on the ground. While I welcome international collaboration from governments and robust debate on policy issues, the true ‘data revolution’ will only be realised when local communities are supported and empowered to participate.

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