An Action Plan Towards a “New Deal on Data” in Africa

Blog by Charlie Martial Ngounou, Hannah Chafetz, Sampriti Saxena, Adrienne Schmoeker, Stefaan G. Verhulst, & Andrew J. Zahuranec: “To help accelerate responsible data use across the African data ecosystem, AfroLeadership with the support of The GovLab hosted two Open Data Action Labs in March and April 2023 focused on advancing open data policy across Africa. The Labs brought together domain experts across the African data ecosystem to build upon the African Union’s Data Policy Framework and develop an instrument to help realize Agenda 2063.

The Labs included discussions about the current state of open data policy and what could be involved in a “New Deal on Data” across the African continent. Specifically, the Labs explored how open data across African countries and communities could become more:

  1. Purpose-led: how to strengthen the value proposition of and incentives for open data and data re-use, and become purpose-led?
  2. Practice-led: how to accelerate the implementation of open data and data re-use policies, moving from policy to practice?
  3. People-led: how to trigger engagement, collaboration and coordination with communities and stakeholders toward advancing data rights, community interests, and diversity of needs and capacities?

Following the Labs, the organizing team conducted a brainstorming session to synthesize the insights gathered and develop an action plan towards a “New Deal on Data” for Africa. Below we provide a summary of our action plan. The action plan includes four vehicles that could make progress towards becoming purpose-, practice-, and people-led. These include:

  1. A “New Deal” Observatory: An online resource that takes stock of the the current state of open data policies, barriers to implementation, and use cases from the local to continental levels
  2. A Community-Led Platform: A solutions platform that helps advance data stewardship across African countries and communities
  3. “New Deal” Investment: Supporting the development of locally sourced solutions and nuanced technologies tailored to the African context
  4. Responsible Data Stewardship Framework: A framework that open data stewards can use to support their existing efforts when looking to encourage or implement grassroots policies…(More)”

The Routledge Handbook of Collective Intelligence for Democracy and Governance 

Open Access Book edited by Stephen Boucher, Carina Antonia Hallin, and Lex Paulson: “…explores the concepts, methodologies, and implications of collective intelligence for democratic governance, in the first comprehensive survey of this field.

Illustrated by a collection of inspiring case studies and edited by three pioneers in collective intelligence, this handbook serves as a unique primer on the science of collective intelligence applied to public challenges and will inspire public actors, academics, students, and activists across the world to apply collective intelligence in policymaking and administration to explore its potential, both to foster policy innovations and reinvent democracy…(More)”.

How civic capacity gets urban social innovations started

Article by Christof Brandtner: “After President Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Accords, several hundred mayors signed national and global treaties announcing their commitments to “step up and do more,” as a senior official of the City of New York told me in a poorly lit room in 2017. Cities were rushing to the forefront of adopting practices and policies to address contemporary social and environmental problems, such as climate change.

What the general enthusiasm masked is significant variation in the extent and speed at which cities adopt these innovations…My study of the geographic dispersion of green buildings certified with the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, published in the American Journal of Sociology, suggests that the organizational communities within cities play a significant role in adopting urban innovations. Cities with a robust civic capacity, where values-oriented organizations actively address social problems, are more likely to adopt new practices quickly and extensively. Civic capacity matters not only through structural channels, as a sign of ample resources and community social capital, but also through organizational channels. Values-oriented organizations are often early adopters of new practices, such as green construction, solar panels, electric vehicles, or equitable hiring practices. By creating proofs of concepts, these early adopters can serve as catalysts of municipal policies and widespread adoption…(More)”.

Digital Technologies in Emerging Countries

Open Access Book edited by Francis Fukuyama and Marietje Schaake: “…While there has been a tremendous upsurge in scholarly research into the political and social impacts of digital technologies, the vast majority of this work has tended to focus on rich countries in North America and Europe. Both regions had high levels of internet penetration and the state capacity to take on—potentially, at any rate—regulatory issues raised by digitization….The current volume is an initial effort to rectify the imbalance in the way that centers and programs such as ours look at the world, by focusing on what might broadly be labeled the “global south,” which we have labeled “emerging countries” (ECs). Countries and regions outside of North America and Europe face similar opportunities and challenges to those developed regions, but also problems that are unique to themselves…(More)”.

Governing the Unknown

Article by Kaushik Basu: “Technology is changing the world faster than policymakers can devise new ways to cope with it. As a result, societies are becoming polarized, inequality is rising, and authoritarian regimes and corporations are doctoring reality and undermining democracy.

For ordinary people, there is ample reason to be “a little bit scared,” as OpenAI CEO Sam Altman recently put it. Major advances in artificial intelligence raise concerns about education, work, warfare, and other risks that could destabilize civilization long before climate change does. To his credit, Altman is urging lawmakers to regulate his industry.

In confronting this challenge, we must keep two concerns in mind. The first is the need for speed. If we take too long, we may find ourselves closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. That is what happened with the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: It came 23 years too late. If we had managed to establish some minimal rules after World War II, the NPT’s ultimate goal of nuclear disarmament might have been achievable.

The other concern involves deep uncertainty. This is such a new world that even those working on AI do not know where their inventions will ultimately take us. A law enacted with the best intentions can still backfire. When America’s founders drafted the Second Amendment conferring the “right to keep and bear arms,” they could not have known how firearms technology would change in the future, thereby changing the very meaning of the word “arms.” Nor did they foresee how their descendants would fail to realize this even after seeing the change.

But uncertainty does not justify fatalism. Policymakers can still effectively govern the unknown as long as they keep certain broad considerations in mind. For example, one idea that came up during a recent Senate hearing was to create a licensing system whereby only select corporations would be permitted to work on AI.

This approach comes with some obvious risks of its own. Licensing can often be a step toward cronyism, so we would also need new laws to deter politicians from abusing the system. Moreover, slowing your country’s AI development with additional checks does not mean that others will adopt similar measures. In the worst case, you may find yourself facing adversaries wielding precisely the kind of malevolent tools that you eschewed. That is why AI is best regulated multilaterally, even if that is a tall order in today’s world…(More)”.

The History of Rules

Interview with Lorraine Daston: “The rules book began with an everyday observation of the dazzling variety and ubiquity of rules. Every culture has rules, but they’re all different.

I eventually settled on three major meanings of rules: rules as laws, rules as algorithms, and finally, rules as models. The latter meaning was predominant in the Western tradition until the end of the 18th century, and I set out to trace what happened to rules as models, but also the rise of algorithmic rules. It’s hard to imagine now, but the word algorithm didn’t even have an entry in the most comprehensive mathematical encyclopedias of the late 19th century.

To get at these changes over time, I cast my nets very wide. I looked at cookbooks, I looked at the rules of warfare. I looked at rules of games. I looked at rules of monastic orders and traffic regulations, sumptuary regulations, spelling rules, and of course algorithms for how to calculate. And if there’s one take-home message from the book, it is a distinction between thick and thin rules.

Thick rules are rules that come upholstered with all manner of qualifications, examples, caveats, and exceptions. They are rules that are braced to confront a world in which recalcitrant particulars refuse to conform to universals—as opposed to thin rules, of which algorithms are perhaps the best prototype: thin rules are formulated without attention to circumstances. Thin rules brook no quarter, they offer no sense of a variable world. Many bureaucratic rules, especially bureaucratic rules in their Kafkaesque exaggeration, also fit this description.

The arc of the book is not to describe how thick rules became thin rules (because we still have thick and thin rules around us all the time), but rather to determine the point at which thick rules become necessary—when you must anticipate high variability and therefore must tweak your rule to fit circumstances—as opposed to the stable, predictable settings in which we turn to thin rules.

In some historically exceptional cases, thin rules can actually get a job done because the context can be standardized and stabilized…(More)”.

Filling Africa’s Data Gap

Article by Jendayi Frazer and Peter Blair Henry: “Every few years, the U.S. government launches a new initiative to boost economic growth in Africa. In bold letters and with bolder promises, the White House announces that public-private partnerships hold the key to growth on the continent. It pledges to make these partnerships a cornerstone of its Africa policy, but time and again it fails to deliver.

A decade after U.S. President Barack Obama rolled out Power Africa—his attempt to solve Africa’s energy crisis by mobilizing private capital—half of the continent’s sub-Saharan population remains without access to electricity. In 2018, the Trump administration proclaimed that its Prosper Africa initiative would counter China’s debt-trap diplomacy and “expand African access to business finance.” Five years on, Chad, Ethiopia, Ghana, and Zambia are in financial distress and pleading for debt relief from Beijing and other creditors. Yet the Biden administration is once more touting the potential of public-private investment in Africa, organizing high-profile visits and holding leadership summits to prove that this time, the United States is “all in” on the continent.

There is a reason these efforts have yielded so little: goodwill tours, clever slogans, and a portfolio of G-7 pet projects in Africa do not amount to a sound investment pitch. Potential investors, public and private, need to know which projects in which countries are economically and financially worthwhile. Above all, that requires current and comprehensive data on the expected returns that investment in infrastructure in the developing world can yield. At present, investors lack this information, so they pass. If the United States wants to “build back better” in Africa—to expand access to business finance and encourage countries on the continent to choose sustainable and high-quality foreign investment over predatory lending from China and Russia—it needs to give investors access to better data…(More)”.

How Would You Defend the Planet From Asteroids? 

Article by Mahmud Farooque, Jason L. Kessler: “On September 26, 2022, NASA successfully smashed a spacecraft into a tiny asteroid named Dimorphos, altering its orbit. Although it was 6.8 million miles from Earth, the Double Asteroid Redirect Test (DART) was broadcast in real time, turning the impact into a rare pan-planetary moment accessible from smartphones around the world. 

For most people, the DART mission was the first glimmer—outside of the movies—that NASA was seriously exploring how to protect Earth from asteroids. Rightly famous for its technological prowess, NASA is less recognized for its social innovations. But nearly a decade before DART, the agency had launched the Asteroid Grand Challenge. In a pioneering approach to public engagement, the challenge brought citizens together to weigh in on how the taxpayer-funded agency might approach some technical decisions involving asteroids. 

The following account of how citizens came to engage with strategies for planetary defense—and the unexpected conclusions they reached—is based on the experiences of NASA employees, members of the Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology (ECAST) network, and forum participants…(More)”.

The Metaverse and Homeland Security

Report by Timothy Marler, Zara Fatima Abdurahaman, Benjamin Boudreaux, and Timothy R. Gulden: “The metaverse is an emerging concept and capability supported by multiple underlying emerging technologies, but its meaning and key characteristics can be unclear and will likely change over time. Thus, its relevance to some organizations, such as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), can be unclear. This lack of clarity can lead to unmitigated threats and missed opportunities. It can also inhibit healthy public discourse and effective technology management generally. To help address these issues, this Perspective provides an initial review of the metaverse concept and how it might be relevant to DHS. As a critical first step with the analysis of any emerging technology, the authors review current definitions and identify key practical characteristics. Often, regardless of a precise definition, it is the fundamental capabilities that are central to discussion and management. Then, given a foundational understanding of what a metaverse entails, the authors summarize primary goals and relevant needs for DHS. Ultimately, in order to be relevant, technologies must align with actual needs for various organizations or users. By cross-walking exemplary DHS needs that stem from a variety of mission sets with pervasive characteristics of metaverses, the authors demonstrate that metaverses are, in fact, relevant to DHS. Finally, the authors identify specific threats and opportunities that DHS could proactively manage. Although this work focuses the discussion of threats and opportunities on DHS, it has broad implications. This work provides a foundation on which further discussions and research can build, minimizing disparities and discoordination in development and policy…(More)”.

Yes, No, Maybe? Legal & Ethical Considerations for Informed Consent in Data Sharing and Integration

Report by Deja Kemp, Amy Hawn Nelson, & Della Jenkins: “Data sharing and integration are increasingly commonplace at every level of government, as cross-program and cross-sector data provide valuable insights to inform resource allocation, guide program implementation, and evaluate policies. Data sharing, while routine, is not without risks, and clear legal frameworks for data sharing are essential to mitigate those risks, protect privacy, and guide responsible data use. In some cases, federal privacy laws offer clear consent requirements and outline explicit exceptions where consent is not required to share data. In other cases, the law is unclear or silent regarding whether consent is needed for data sharing. Importantly, consent can present both ethical and logistical challenges, particularly when integrating cross-sector data. This brief will frame out key concepts related to consent; explore major federal laws governing the sharing of administrative data, including individually identifiable information; and examine important ethical implications of consent, particularly in cases when the law is silent or unclear. Finally, this brief will outline the foundational role of strong governance and consent frameworks in ensuring ethical data use and offer technical alternatives to consent that may be appropriate for certain data uses….(More)”.