Big Data and Human Development

The big data and human development research network aims to investigate the potential uses of 'big data' for advancing human development and addressing equity gaps.

Data are now almost ubiquitous. Sensors and software are digitising and storing all manner of social, economic, political and environmental patterns and processes. As the size of these datasets has increased exponentially, many have begun to focus on how ‘big data’ harvested from online sources can allow potentially unprecedented insights into our world that may facilitate efforts to enhance human development.

Yet relatively little is known about how best to harness ‘big data’ in ways that could effectively inform development processes, particularly for the most disadvantaged, and whether those at the margins who produce the least amount of data risk becoming even more invisible. While new expertise is emerging, it remains unclear whether, and how, ordinary citizens will be able to seize these opportunities, individually and collectively and use them to their advantage.

Our initiative:

The ‘big data and human development’ research network aims to investigate the potential uses of ‘big data’ for advancing human development and addressing equity gaps. We are establishing a cross-disciplinary and global network to map what data sources and techniques exist for harnessing new digital data and address persistent concerns regarding human development, inequity, exclusion, and participation.

Our Goals:

The goals of this network will be to stimulate policy-oriented research that seeks to understand: (1) what presences and absences of data tell us about issues of participation and exclusion; (2) what data tell us about gaps in human development: facilitating better decision-making and accountability in previously data-sparse environments; (3) what tools have emerged globally that can maximise citizen ownership of big data, by making data meaningful within the cultures of participation that characterise different localities.

Our Approach:

We plan to achieve these goals with three core activities.

1) First, we plan build a digital observatory that seeks to assess the potentials of different data sources for informing human development. This observatory will be a web-platform that can link to relevant data and metadata.

2) Through the use of detailed case studies, we aim to empirically illustrate some of the promises and perils of using big data to inform human development. These case studies will be carried out in collaboration with end-users is some of the countries that most need to access big data and harness them for human development, but lack the expertise to make use of them as they are currently offered.

3) Third, we plan to bring together research and policy from both Global North and South to ensure that methodological knowledge about big data is appropriately mapped on to the interests of stakeholders to achieve key development outcomes. We hope to bring together key figures in order to avoid what Schroeder 2014 refers to as the tail of big data wagging the dog.

Our Planned Activities:

  • An initial workshop will be held in Oxford in the first year of the initative bringing together a limited number of key stakeholders to discern the potential use of big data for human development. This workshop will help inform development of the data observatory and selection of case studies.
  • A core activity for our project is the development and maintenance of a data observatory of big data and its potential for informing human development
  • A final workshop will be held in the second year to disseminate our preliminary findings to a broader range of stakeholders and further engage with the types of empirical research being pursued.
  • We also plan to host a seminar series focusing on ‘big data and human development.’ This will be an open event for anyone in Oxford, and will be freely webcast for a broader audience.

Our hope is that this project will bring together a range of disciplinary strengths at Oxford and beyond. At this early stage, we welcome inputs, suggestions, and collaborations, to steer and guide this initiative. Bringing together work in this area will not only result in ground-breaking, cross-disciplinary research, but will also ultimately serve to inform more evidence based human development programmes around the world.


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