Skip down to main content

Big Data, Human Development and Valuing Voices: Innovation and Ethical Challenges in the Work of Africa’s Voices Foundation

8 Mar 2016

Africa’s Voices Foundation is a non-profit spin-out from research at Cambridge University’s Centre of Governance and Human Rights that provides expertise for citizen engagement and social data analytics to development and governance actors. The highly interdisciplinary research team at Africa’s Voices combine data science, social science and contextual knowledge (including language) to generate and analyse large volumes of unstructured social conversation data. We use our methodological innovations to provide detailed insights into the views and priorities of remote, under-served and bottom-of-the-pyramid social groups, so far mainly in East Africa. We target hard to reach communities through context-relevant channels and approaches such as interactive local language radio shows, but also work with social media platforms. To date, we have worked with organisations such as UNICEF Somalia, Oxfam Kenya, the Well Told Story and BBC Media Action on projects to understand beliefs, opinions and practices of particular social groups on topics such as routine immunization in Somalia, maternal health in Uganda, extractive industries in Kenya and contraception amongst Kenyan youth.

This presentation reflects critically on where Africa’s Voices’ strengths and weaknesses lie in terms of avoiding key pitfalls of power and knowledge hierarchies in Big Data and Human Development. We will explore enticing human development possibilities and ethical challenges of working with citizen-generated data in the African context, with a particular focus on projects involving radio discussions and data gathering using SMS and digital platforms. If tensions between unique citizen voices and Big Data are navigated well, the affordances of digital communications and data analytics can be tailored in context relevant and more inclusive ways. That said, issues around informed consent, data privacy and security threats remain a challenge. The presentation draws on case study examples of Africa’s Voices work, to shed light on the uniqueness of Africa’s Voices ethos, theoretical framework, methods and tools for combining social and data sciences to analyse conversational data, as well as key ethical concerns that arise from how we work.