Bottom of the data pyramid: Big data and the global South

Bottom of the data pyramid: Big data and the global South

Payal Arora (Erasmus University)

Big data is a misnomer. While the field is relatively young, much thought has already been churned on critiquing the term, particularly about not being able to equate the scale of data with diversity. This being the case, in the name of diversity, we should look at big data from the angle of the global south. After all, the majority of the world’s population resides outside of the West. Yet, when we pay attention to the debates about surveillance, privacy and net neutrality and the demand for alternative models and practices to sustain the digital commons, they are primarily driven by western concerns, contexts, and user behaviors from these privileged domains. This undoubtedly provides a thwarted view of the internet.

Perhaps a decade ago, it was legitimate to argue that much of this marginalized demographic was not connected to the digital realm and thereby, could not be incorporated into the contemporary debate, relegating them to the digital divide discourse and the Development Studies experts. Since then however, with the exponential growth of mobile technologies in even the most disadvantaged contexts, along with liberalization policies, and public-private sector commitments to provide connectivity to even the rural areas of the global South, this is no longer a valid argument. For instance, it’s not just the usual suspects such as China and India taking over the digital sphere, but even regions such as Saudi Arabia and, recently, Myanmar where the shift has been from a mere 1% of its population being online a few years ago to an expected increase of almost 50% by the end of 2015. It is forecast that by 2020 the majority of geolocated digital data will come from these emerging economies.

Of course, nobody argues this will be an easy task. The fact remains that a majority of this population continues to live below $2 a day and comes with new cultural modes of being, much of which remain a blackhole to the internet savvy scholars and public at large. C. K. Prahalad, a neoliberal guru and an influential figure in this field has coined the term ‘bottom of the pyramid’ (bop) to encapsulate the roughly 4 billion people in this position. He argues that it was time to reframe this populace as ‘consumers’ instead of ‘beneficiaries,’ moving away from long established post-colonial perspectives driven by white guilt and paternalism. By viewing them as consumers, it would be a win-win solution for both the market and the state, where the common good sits side-by-side with profit making. This viewpoint gained a further boost with the rise of Web 2.0 technologies and the cultural shift in perceiving users as co-creators and as masses of collective intelligence and wisdom. At last the time has come where we can envision the poor as future digital consumers and agents of change, or so it seems.

With big data initiatives emerging in the global south in the name of the poor, it is worth asking whether we are experiencing today a databased democracy. Take the case of India and their ambitious and ongoing Biometric Identity Project, promising a consolidated citizen identity with 12 billion fingerprints, 2.4 billion iris scans and 1.2 billion photographs of its people. The BBC endorses this effort where, “the poor] with no proof to offer of their existence will leapfrog into a national online system, another global first, where their identities can be validated anytime anywhere in a few seconds.” While the West appears to be moving away from the convergence of datasets due to privacy laws, constitutional rights and public concern, these very initiatives in the global South are celebrated as acts of empowerment. Why the apparent contradiction?

This attitude stems from the fact that currently, in places such as India, the majority of its citizens do not hold passports or any other form of identity, making it problematic to disseminate welfare benefits to the masses. Thereby, welfare programmes, totalling $60 billion in value, are largely siphoned off by middlemen using fake identities, leaving the anonymous poor helpless in the face of such acts. Hence, if you are against such big data initiatives, you must be against the poor! Such thinking however blocks us from being constructively critical of such systems to ensure that big data can enable the poor.

Numerous problems pervade. First, while promising to be voluntary these new digital identities are often tied to welfare benefits and even participation in religious pilgrimages and other public events. Clearly, people are operating within structured power relations that they are powerless to contest. Secondly, there are no proper laws in place on protection of personal data, which can foster more vulnerability amongst the poor. Thirdly, there is no such thing as infallibility in authentication. When compromised, they are even harder to secure compared to digital signatures. Today, for instance, an iris can be captured remotely without a person’s knowledge using a high-resolution camera. And what of data breaches? There are few contingency plans in place given that this is a real possibility. This is illustrated by recent examples of state vulnerability such as the US government breach of sensitive military data and Israel’s entire population database being found online. German hackers have proved that they can spoof fingerprint scanners and even Iris scanners.

Furthermore, when pertaining to such a demographic, we need to account for what Owen Thomas calls ‘high tech racism’. Certain bodies are more ‘unreadable’ than others. In other words, farmers and construction workers for instance, often have worn out fingerprints that scanners reject due to their ‘low quality attributes.’ This provides exclusion of the very subjects that these programs are intent on including. It furthers the exploitation of these people through protracted bureaucratic procedures due to these new layers of denial. Lastly, far from the claim of these initiatives to being novel and unprecedented, we need to recognize that these surveillance systems have their roots in colonial practices of identification of the colonized. During the mid-nineteenth century, the British Raj instituted the technology of biometric surveillance of fingerprints to police their colonies. After all, the fear of an uprising was a constant motivator for identification and tracking of their ‘unruly’ subjects. Hence, before we are quick to celebrate these initiatives, we need to pay heed to such concerns and historical lineages if we are to guarantee that these big data initiatives take the pathway to democracy for all.

Also, it is worth asking whether by embracing the bottom of the pyramid (bop) perspective of the poor as empowered consumers, are we in fact marketizing the poor? Today, bop economies are on the rise. Several corporations see the virtue of this perspective, and are vigorously experimenting on ‘doing good’ and simultaneously gaining the first mover advantage among this future consumer base. In the name of inclusive capitalism, the previously ‘unusable’ poor have become a viable market. Their informal economies have been brought into the fold by this neoliberal leaning. As a Unilever representative remarked, “Of course, when we are talking about toothpaste [to promote good hygiene practices] it happens to be ‘Close-Up’ . . . . When we are talking about soap, it happens to be ‘Lifebuoy’.” Marketing literature has long proven that once you shift consumers’ behaviour in a particular realm, you are well placed to gain their loyalty across an entire category of products. This is no different from the adoption of the internet. Currently, Facebook, by providing free access to select websites, via its platform to a number of emerging economies, has become the internet to this substantive user base. Net neutrality here has evidently taken a backseat in the name of doing good and given Facebook a unique vantage point into database behaviour among this bop populace.

Lest we become too cynical here, some may proclaim that big data has been tremendously empowering as witnessed by crowdsourcing platforms like Ushahidi. This platform was designed to turn data from different channels into real-time crisis maps that can assist humanitarian relief efforts. Ushahidi launched a crisis map within four days after the Haitian earthquake in 2010. Take another example, Nextdrop, a crowdsourcing app that allows the poor at a nominal price to be notified of where to get their drinking water due to chronic water shortages prevalent in much of the global South. While these are commendable efforts, we need to recognize that these are also business models that rest on the failings of the state. The longevity of such social entrepreneurship lies in the belief that the state will continue to disappoint its citizens. Here, zones of marginalization become zones of innovation.

To conclude, when looking at the bottom of the data pyramid, there is no doubt that this data deluge from the global South will have a major impact on the future of the internet. The question that remains is how to treat this rising populace as culturally diverse and yet refrain from exoticizing them; how to allow big data to be an empowering tool among emerging economies while simultaneously strengthening their institutions; and how to create alternative modes of inclusivity to the default neoliberal approach of the marketization of the poor.


Payal Arora is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Communication at Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands. She is the (co)author/editor of numerous books including Dot Com Mantra: Social Computing in the Central Himalayas (Ashgate 2010), The Leisure Commons: A Spatial History of Web 2.0 (Routledge, 2014, awarded the EUR Fellowship), Crossroads in New Media, Identity & Law (Palgrave 2015), and the forthcoming Poor@Play: Digital life beyond the West (Harvard University Press). Her expertise lies in digital cultures/ literacies, new media activism and big data in the global South. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Catalyst Lab, where academia, business, and the public dialogue through social media. She sits on several boards including Columbia’s Earth Institute Connect to Learn, Technology, Knowledge & Society Association and The World Women Global Council in New York. She has held Fellow positions at GE, NYU, and Rio’s Institute of Technology and Society.

Photo credit: Nimmi Rangaswamy