Facebook’s AI team maps the whole population of Africa


Devin Coldewey at TechCrunch: “A new map of nearly all of Africa shows exactly where the continent’s 1.3 billion people live, down to the meter, which could help everyone from local governments to aid organizations. The map joins others like it from Facebook  created by running satellite imagery through a machine learning model.

It’s not exactly that there was some mystery about where people live, but the degree of precision matters. You may know that a million people live in a given region, and that about half are in the bigger city and another quarter in assorted towns. But that leaves hundreds of thousands only accounted for in the vaguest way.

Fortunately, you can always inspect satellite imagery and pick out the spots where small villages and isolated houses and communities are located. The only problem is that Africa is big. Really big. Manually labeling the satellite imagery even from a single mid-sized country like Gabon or Malawi would take a huge amount of time and effort. And for many applications of the data, such as coordinating the response to a natural disaster or distributing vaccinations, time lost is lives lost.

Better to get it all done at once then, right? That’s the idea behind Facebook’s Population Density Maps project, which had already mapped several countries over the last couple of years before the decision was made to take on the entire African continent….

“The maps from Facebook ensure we focus our volunteers’ time and resources on the places they’re most needed, improving the efficacy of our programs,” said Tyler Radford, executive director of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, one of the project’s partners.

The core idea is straightforward: Match census data (how many people live in a region) with structure data derived from satellite imagery to get a much better idea of where those people are located.

“With just the census data, the best you can do is assume that people live everywhere in the district – buildings, fields, and forests alike,” said Facebook engineer James Gill. “But once you know the building locations, you can skip the fields and forests and only allocate the population to the buildings. This gives you very detailed 30 meter by 30 meter population maps.”

That’s several times more accurate than any extant population map of this size. The analysis is done by a machine learning agent trained on OpenStreetMap data from all over the world, where people have labeled and outlined buildings and other features.

First the huge amount of Africa’s surface that obviously has no structure had to be removed from consideration, reducing the amount of space the team had to evaluate by a factor of a thousand or more. Then, using a region-specific algorithm (because things look a lot different in coastal Morocco than they do in central Chad), the model identifies patches that contain a building….(More)”.

Does increased ‘participation’ equal a new-found enthusiasm for democracy?


Blog by Stephen King and Paige Nicol: “With a few months under our belts, 2019 looks unlikely to be the year of a great global turnaround for democracy. The decade of democratic ‘recession’ that Larry Diamond declared in 2015 has dragged on and deepened, and may now be teetering on the edge of becoming a full-blown depression. 

The start of each calendar year is marked by the release of annual indices, rankings, and reports on how democracy is faring around the world. 2018 reports from Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) highlighted precipitous declines in civil liberties in long-standing democracies as well as authoritarian states. Some groups, including migrants, women, ethnic and other minorities, opposition politicians, and journalists have been particularly affected by these setbacks. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the number of journalists murdered nearly doubled last year, while the number imprisoned remained above 250 for the third consecutive year. 

Yet, the EIU also found a considerable increase in political participation worldwide. Levels of participation (including voting, protesting, and running for elected office, among other dimensions) increased substantially enough last year to offset falling scores in the other four categories of the index. Based on the methodology used, the rise in political participation was significant enough to prevent a decline in the global overall score for democracy for the first time in three years.

Though this development could give cause for optimism we believe it could also raise new concerns. 

In Zimbabwe, Sudan, and Venezuela we see people who, through desperation and frustration, have taken to the streets – a form of participation which has been met with brutal crackdowns. Time has yet to tell what the ultimate outcome of these protests will be, but it is clear that governments with autocratic tendencies have more – and cheaper – tools to monitor, direct, control, and suppress participation than ever before. 

Elsewhere, we see a danger of people becoming dislocated and disenchanted with democracy, as their representatives fail to take meaningful action on the issues that matter to them. In the UK Parliament, as Brexit discussions have become increasingly polarised and fractured along party political and ideological lines, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned that there was a threat of social unrest if Parliament was seen to be frustrating the ‘will of the people.’ 

While we see enhanced participation as crucial to just and fair societies, it alone will not be the silver bullet that saves democracy. Whether this trend becomes a cause for hope or concern will depend on three factors: who is participating, what form does participation take, and how is participation received by those with power?…(More)”.

Data-driven models of governance across borders


Introduction to Special Issue of FirstMonday, edited by Payal Arora and Hallam Stevens: “This special issue looks closely at contemporary data systems in diverse global contexts and through this set of papers, highlights the struggles we face as we negotiate efficiency and innovation with universal human rights and social inclusion. The studies presented in these essays are situated in diverse models of policy-making, governance, and/or activism across borders. Attention to big data governance in western contexts has tended to highlight how data increases state and corporate surveillance of citizens, affecting rights to privacy. By moving beyond Euro-American borders — to places such as Africa, India, China, and Singapore — we show here how data regimes are motivated and understood on very different terms….

To establish a kind of baseline, the special issue opens by considering attitudes toward big data in Europe. René König’s essay examines the role of “citizen conferences” in understanding the public’s view of big data in Germany. These “participatory technology assessments” demonstrated that citizens were concerned about the control of big data (should it be under the control of the government or individuals?), about the need for more education about big data technologies, and the need for more government regulation. Participants expressed, in many ways, traditional liberal democratic views and concerns about these technologies centered on individual rights, individual responsibilities, and education. Their proposed solutions too — more education and more government regulation — fit squarely within western liberal democratic traditions.

In contrast to this, Payal Arora’s essay draws us immediately into the vastly different contexts of data governance in India and China. India’s Aadhaar biometric identification system, through tracking its citizens with iris scanning and other measures, promises to root out corruption and provide social services to those most in need. Likewise, China’s emerging “social credit system,” while having immense potential for increasing citizen surveillance, offers ways of increasing social trust and fostering more responsible social behavior online and offline. Although the potential for authoritarian abuses of both systems is high, Arora focuses on how these technologies are locally understood and lived on an everyday basis, which spans from empowering to oppressing their people. From this perspective, the technologies offer modes of “disrupt[ing] systems of inequality and oppression” that should open up new conversations about what democratic participation can and should look like in China and India.

If China and India offer contrasting non-democratic and democratic cases, we turn next to a context that is neither completely western nor completely non-western, neither completely democratic nor completely liberal. Hallam Stevens’ account of government data in Singapore suggests the very different role that data can play in this unique political and social context. Although the island state’s data.gov.sg participates in global discourses of sharing, “open data,” and transparency, much of the data made available by the government is oriented towards the solution of particular economic and social problems. Ultimately, the ways in which data are presented may contribute to entrenching — rather than undermining or transforming — existing forms of governance. The account of data and its meanings that is offered here once again challenges the notion that such data systems can or should be understood in the same ways that similar systems have been understood in the western world.

If systems such as Aadhaar, “social credit,” and data.gov.sg profess to make citizens and governments more visible and legible, Rolien Hoyngexamines what may remain invisible even within highly pervasive data-driven systems. In the world of e-waste, data-driven modes of surveillance and logistics are critical for recycling. But many blind spots remain. Hoyng’s account reminds us that despite the often-supposed all-seeing-ness of big data, we should remain attentive to what escapes the data’s gaze. Here, in midst of datafication, we find “invisibility, uncertainty, and, therewith, uncontrollability.” This points also to the gap between the fantasies of how data-driven systems are supposed to work, and their realization in the world. Such interstices allow individuals — those working with e-waste in Shenzhen or Africa, for example — to find and leverage hidden opportunities. From this perspective, the “blind spots of big data” take on a very different significance.

Big data systems provide opportunities for some, but reduce those for others. Mark Graham and Mohammad Amir Anwar examine what happens when online outsourcing platforms create a “planetary labor market.” Although providing opportunities for many people to make money via their Internet connection, Graham and Anwar’s interviews with workers across sub-Saharan Africa demonstrate how “platform work” alters the balance of power between labor and capital. For many low-wage workers across the globe, the platform- and data-driven planetary labor market means downward pressure on wages, fewer opportunities to collectively organize, less worker agency, and less transparency about the nature of the work itself. Moving beyond bold pronouncements that the “world is flat” and big data as empowering, Graham and Anwar show how data-driven systems of employment can act to reduce opportunities for those residing in the poorest parts of the world. The affordances of data and platforms create a planetary labor market for global capital but tie workers ever-more tightly to their own localities. Once again, the valances of global data systems look very different from this “bottom-up” perspective.

Philippa Metcalfe and Lina Dencik shift this conversation from the global movement of labor to that of people, as they write about the implications of European datafication systems on the governance of refugees entering this region. This work highlights how intrinsic to datafication systems is the classification, coding, and collating of people to legitimize the extent of their belonging in the society they seek to live in. The authors argue that these datafied regimes of power have substantively increased their role in the regulating of human mobility in the guise of national security. These means of data surveillance can foster new forms of containment and entrapment of entire groups of people, creating further divides between “us” and “them.” Through vast interoperable databases, digital registration processes, biometric data collection, and social media identity verification, refugees have become some of the most monitored groups at a global level while at the same time, their struggles remain the most invisible in popular discourse….(More)”.

The global South is changing how knowledge is made, shared and used


Robert Morrell at The Conversation: “Globalisation and new technology have changed the ways that knowledge is made, disseminated and consumed. At the push of a button, one can find articles or sources from all over the world. Yet the global knowledge economy is still marked by its history.

The former colonial nations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – the rich countries of Europe and North America which are collectively called the global North (normally considered to include the West and the first world, the North contains a quarter of the world’s population but controls 80% of income earned) – are still central in the knowledge economy. But the story is not one simply of Northern dominance. A process of making knowledge in the South is underway.

European colonisers encountered many sophisticated and complex knowledge systems among the colonised. These had their own intellectual workforces, their own environmental, geographical, historical and medical sciences. They also had their own means of developing knowledge. Sometimes the colonisers tried to obliterate these knowledges.

In other instances colonisers appropriated local knowledge, for instance in agriculture, fisheries and mining. Sometimes they recognised and even honoured other knowledge systems and intellectuals. This was the case among some of the British in India, and was the early form of “Orientalism”, the study of people and cultures from the East.

In the past few decades, there’s been more critique of global knowledge inequalities and the global North’s dominance. There have also been shifts in knowledge production patterns; some newer disciplines have stepped away from old patterns of inequality.

These issues are examined in a new book, Knowledge and Global Power: Making new sciences in the South (published by Wits University Press), which I co-authored with Fran Collyer, Raewyn Connell and Joao Maia. The focus is especially on those areas where old patterns are not being replicated, so the study chooses climate change, gender and HIV and AIDS as three new areas of knowledge production in which new voices from the South might be prominent….(More)”.

How data collected from mobile phones can help electricity planning


Article by Eduardo Alejandro Martínez Ceseña, Joseph Mutale, Mathaios Panteli, and Pierluigi Mancarella in The Conversation: “Access to reliable and affordable electricity brings many benefits. It supports the growth of small businesses, allows students to study at night and protects health by offering an alternative cooking fuel to coal or wood.

Great efforts have been made to increase electrification in Africa, but rates remain low. In sub-Saharan Africa only 42% of urban areas have access to electricity, just 22% in rural areas.

This is mainly because there’s not enough sustained investment in electricity infrastructure, many systems can’t reliably support energy consumption or the price of electricity is too high.

Innovation is often seen as the way forward. For instance, cheaper and cleaner technologies, like solar storage systems deployed through mini grids, can offer a more affordable and reliable option. But, on their own, these solutions aren’t enough.

To design the best systems, planners must know where on- or off-grid systems should be placed, how big they need to be and what type of energy should be used for the most effective impact.

The problem is reliable data – like village size and energy demand – needed for rural energy planning is scarce or non-existent. Some can be estimated from records of human activities – like farming or access to schools and hospitals – which can show energy needs. But many developing countries have to rely on human activity data from incomplete and poorly maintained national census. This leads to inefficient planning.

In our research we found that data from mobile phones offer a solution. They provide a new source of information about what people are doing and where they’re located.

In sub-Saharan Africa, there are more people with mobile phones than access to electricity, as people are willing to commute to get a signal and/or charge their phones.

This means that there’s an abundance of data – that’s constantly updated and available even in areas that haven’t been electrified – that could be used to optimise electrification planning….

We were able to use mobile data to develop a countrywide electrification strategy for Senegal. Although Senegal has one of the highest access to electricity rates in sub-Saharan Africa, just 38% of people in rural areas have access.

By using mobile data we were able to identify the approximate size of rural villages and access to education and health facilities. This information was then used to size and cost different electrification options and select the most economic one for each zone – whether villages should be connected to the grids, or where off-grid systems – like solar battery systems – were a better option.

To collect the data we randomly selected mobile phone data from 450,000 users from Senegal’s main telecomms provider, Sonatel, to understand exactly how information from mobile phones could be used. This includes the location of user and the characteristics of the place they live….(More)”

The trouble with informed consent in smart cities


Blog Post by Emilie Scott: “…Lilian Edwards, a U.K.-based academic in internet law, points out that public spaces like smart cities further dilutes the level of consent in the IoT: “While consumers may at least have theoretically had a chance to read the privacy policy of their Nest thermostat before signing the contract, they will have no such opportunity in any real sense when their data is collected by the smart road or smart tram they go to work on, or as they pass the smart dustbin.”

If citizens have expectations that their interactions in smart cities will resemble the technological interactions they have become familiar with, they will likely be sadly misinformed about the level of control they will have over what personal information they end up sharing.

The typical citizen understands that “choosing convenience” when you engage with technology can correspond to a decrease in their level of personal privacy. On at least some level, this is intended to be a choice. Most users may not choose to carefully read a privacy policy on a smartphone application or a website; however, if that policy is well-written and compliant, the user can exercise a right to decide whether they consent to the terms and wish to engage with the company.

The right to choose what personal information you exchange for services is lost in the smart city.

Theoretically, the smart city can bypass this right because municipal government services are subject to provincial public-sector privacy legislation, which can ultimately entail informing citizens their personal information is being collected by way of a notice.

However, the assumption that smart city projects are solely controlled by the public sector is questionable and verges on problematic. Most smart-city projects in Canada are run via public-private partnerships as municipal governments lack both the budget and the expertise to implement the technology system. Private companies can have leading roles in designing, building, financing, operating and maintaining smart-city projects. In the process, they can also have a large degree of control over the data that is created and used.

In some countries, these partnerships can even result in an unprecedented level of privatization. For example, Cisco Systems debatably has a larger claim over Songdo’s development than the South Korean government. Smart-city public-private partnership can have complex implications for data control even when both partners are highly engaged. Trapeze, a private-sector company in transportation software, cautions the public sector on the unintended transfer of data control when electing private providers to operate data systems in a partnership….

When the typical citizen enters a smart city, they will not know 1.) what personal information is being collected, nor will they know 2.) who is collecting it. The former is an established requirement of informed consent, and the later has debatably never been an issue until the development of smart cities.

While similar privacy issues are playing out in smart cities all around the world, Canada must take steps to determine how its own specific privacy legal structure is going to play a role in responding to these privacy issues in our own emerging smart-city projects….(More)”.

Africa Data Revolution Report 2018


Report by Jean-Paul Van Belle et al: ” The Africa Data Revolution Report 2018 delves into the recent evolution and current state of open data – with an emphasis on Open Government Data – in the African data communities. It explores key countries across the continent, researches a wide range of open data initiatives, and benefits from global thematic expertise. This second edition improves on process, methodology and collaborative partnerships from the first edition.

It draws from country reports, existing global and continental initiatives, and key experts’ input, in order to provide a deep analysis of the
actual impact of open data in the African context. In particular, this report features a dedicated Open Data Barometer survey as well as a special 2018
Africa Open Data Index regional edition surveying the status and impact of open data and dataset availability in 30 African countries. The research is complemented with six in-depth qualitative case studies featuring the impact of open data in Kenya, South Africa (Cape Town), Ghana, Rwanda, Burkina Faso and Morocco. The report was critically reviewed by an eminent panel of experts.

Findings: In some governments, there is a slow iterative cycle between innovation, adoption, resistance and re-alignment before finally resulting in Open Government Data (OGD) institutionalization and eventual maturity. There is huge diversity between African governments in embracing open data, and each country presents a complex and unique picture. In several African countries, there appears to be genuine political will to open up government based datasets, not only for increased transparency but also to achieve economic impacts, social equity and stimulate innovation.

The role of open data intermediaries is crucial and has been insufficiently recognized in the African context. Open data in Africa needs a vibrant, dynamic, open and multi-tier data ecosystem if the datasets are to make a real impact. Citizens are rarely likely to access open data themselves. But the democratization of information and communication platforms has opened up opportunities among a large and diverse set of intermediaries to explore and combine relevant data sources, sometimes with private or leaked data. The news media, NGOs and advocacy groups, and to a much lesser extent academics and social or profit-driven entrepreneurs have shown that OGD can create real impact on the achievement of the SDGs…

The report encourages national policy makers and international funding or development agencies to consider the status, impact and future of open
data in Africa on the basis of this research. Other stakeholders working with or for open data can hopefully  also learn from what is happening on the continent. It is hoped that the findings and recommendations contained in the report will form the basis of a robust, informed and dynamic debate around open government data in Africa….(More)”.

Can Data Save U.N. Peacekeeping?


Adam Day at World Policy Review: “Does international peacekeeping protect civilians caught up in civil wars? Do the 16,000 United Nations peacekeepers deployed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo actually save lives, and if so how many? Did the 9,000 patrols conducted by the U.N. Mission in South Sudan in the past three months protect civilians there? 

The answer is a dissatisfying “maybe.” Without a convincing story of saving lives, the U.N. is open to attacks by the likes of White House national security adviser John Bolton, who call peacekeeping “unproductive” and push for further cuts to the organization’s already diminished budget. But peacekeeping can—and must—make a case for its own utility, using data already at its fingertips. …(More)”.

A Parent-To-Parent Campaign To Get Vaccine Rates Up


Alex Olgin at NPR: “In 2017, Kim Nelson had just moved her family back to her hometown in South Carolina. Boxes were still scattered around the apartment, and while her two young daughters played, Nelson scrolled through a newspaper article on her phone. It said religious exemptions for vaccines had jumped nearly 70 percent in recent years in the Greenville area — the part of the state she had just moved to.

She remembers yelling to her husband in the other room, “David, you have to get in here! I can’t believe this.”

Up until that point, Nelson hadn’t run into mom friends who didn’t vaccinate….

Nelson started her own group, South Carolina Parents for Vaccines. She began posting scientific articles online. She started responding to private messages from concerned parents with specific questions. She also found that positive reinforcement was important and would roam around the mom groups, sprinkling affirmations.

“If someone posts, ‘My child got their two-months shots today,’ ” Nelson says, she’d quickly post a follow-up comment: “Great job, mom!”

Nelson was inspired by peer-focused groups around the country doing similar work. Groups with national reach like Voices for Vaccines and regional groups like Vax Northwest in Washington state take a similar approach, encouraging parents to get educated and share facts about vaccines with other parents….

Public health specialists are raising concerns about the need to improve vaccination rates. But efforts to reach vaccine-hesitant parents often fail. When presented with facts about vaccine safety, parents often remained entrenched in a decision not to vaccinate.

Pediatricians could play a role — and many do — but they’re not compensated to have lengthy discussions with parents, and some of them find it a frustrating task. That has left an opening for alternative approaches, like Nelson’s.

Nelson thought it would be best to zero in on moms who were still on the fence about vaccines.

“It’s easier to pull a hesitant parent over than it is somebody who is firmly anti-vax,” Nelson says. She explains that parents who oppose vaccination often feel so strongly about it that they won’t engage in a discussion. “They feel validated by that choice — it’s part of community, it’s part of their identity.”…(More)”.

Can transparency make extractive industries more accountable?


Blog by John Gaventa at IDS: “Over the last two decades great strides have been made in terms of holding extractive industries accountable.  As demonstrated at the Global Assembly of Publish What You Pay (PWYP), which I attended recently in Dakar, Senegal, more information than ever about revenue flows to governments from the oil gas and mining industries is now publicly available.  But new research suggests that such information disclosure, while important, is by itself not enough to hold companies to account, and address corruption.

… a recent study in Mozambique by researchers Nicholas Aworti and Adriano Adriano Nuvunga questions this assumption.  Supported by the Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) Research Programme, the research explored why greater transparency of information has not necessarily led to greater social and political action for accountability.

Like many countries in Africa, Mozambique is experiencing massive outside investments in recently discovered natural resources, including rich deposits of natural gas and oil, as well as coal and other minerals.  Over the last decade, NGOs like the Centre for Public Integrity, who helped facilitate the study, have done brave and often pioneering work to elicit information on the extractive industry, and to publish it in hard-hitting reports, widely reported in the press, and discussed at high-level stakeholder meetings.

Yet, as Aworti and Nuvunga summarise in a policy brief based on their research, ‘neither these numerous investigative reports nor the EITI validation reports have inspired social and political action such as public protest or state prosecution.’   Corruption continues, and despite the newfound mineral wealth, the country remains one of the poorest in Africa.

The authors ask, ‘If information disclosure has not been enough to galvanise citizen and institutional action, what could be the reason?’ The research found 18 other factors that affect whether information leads to action, including the quality of the information and how it is disseminated, the degree of citizen empowerment, the nature of the political regime, and the role of external donors in insisting on accountability….

The research and the challenges highlighted by the Mozambique case point to the need for new approaches.   At the Global Assembly in Dakar several hundred of PYWP’s more than 700 members from 45 countries gathered to discuss and to approve the organisation’s next strategic plan. Among other points, the plan calls for going beyond transparency –  to more intentionally use information to foster and promote citizen action,  strengthen  grassroots participation and voice on mining issues, and  improve links with other related civil society movements working on gender, climate and tax justice in the extractives field.

Coming at a time where increasing push back and repression threaten the space for citizens to speak truth to power, this is a bold call.  I chaired two sessions with PWYP activists who had been beaten, jailed, threatened or exiled for challenging mining companies, and 70 per cent of the delegates at the conference said their work had been affected by this more repressive environment….(More)”.