The mention of big data can all too quickly evoke chrome utopias with everything from your watch to the park bench connected to the internet and harvesting information. Yet, ultimately, the benefits of big data come from simply connecting information to the people to whom it is most valuable – and that can be done without next-generation machines.
Many big data projects are carried out with more mundane means, where data is collected not by devices but by hand. A public spending watchdog in Nigeria, for example, uses face-to-face meetings with Members of Parliament to collect spending data.
Through talking to MPs directly, BudgIT convinces them to share hard-to-get information about what their departments are really spending money on. Nigeria is ranked 136th out of 176 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, and MPs are suspicious of BudgIT’s requests for spending information for fear of being investigated.
The spending information can’t be collected automatically because Nigeria’s MPs are often unwilling to share their data in the first place. BudgIt’s staff, therefore, have to convince them that the data will be used to serve the public and not to prosecute them personally. This process makes the data more reliable than the reports that had previously been released. BudgIT’s efforts helped persuade the Nigerian government to join the Open Government Partnership, a multilateral initiative to promote transparency and stamp out corruption.
While the most common way of releasing data to the public is via online portals, one startup in Ghana sends representatives armed with information into communities to speak with people directly.
TransGov collects data on development projects such as roads and schools, and distributes it to people in the area – not only online, but also via text message, word of mouth and voice recognition technology, which allows illiterate Ghanaians to find the information they need simply by speaking into their phones. TransGov’s aim was to improve democratic participation in the country: when it formed in 2015, staff discovered that 80% of the Ghanaians they surveyed did not know who their local assembly representative was. By bringing relevant information to the localities via public meetings, TransGov staff are able to engage people with the political system using the data that matters most to them.
Since only 28% of Ghanaians have access to the internet, TransGov is unable to use its website alone to distribute their data. By sending staff out to rural areas, they access those citizens who would otherwise remain ignorant of political processes in the country. The combination of methods has helped TransGov reach 400,000 Ghanaians so far.
Low-tech solutions in the developed world
Even in some of the world’s most advanced cities, certain data collection tasks still need to be completed manually. In 2007, New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) began collecting masses of data on its rat population by sending its officers out to make in-person inspections.
There are few technologies able to accurately track the presence of rats, as sensors can’t be placed in every building in the city. DOHMH has to send its officers out to check areas property by property for rat activity. For years, they only conducted rat inspections after members of the public made complaints about particular properties. In 2007, they inspected all the properties in the Bronx unprompted, in order to build a map showing where rat infestations were. They then published this data via an online portal, allowing local residents to tackle the problem themselves by cleaning up neighbourhoods and removing the rats’ food sources.
By successfully coordinating cooperation between residents and agencies, the DOHMH has helped to reduce rat activity by 30% to 60% in certain New York neighbourhoods.
Low-tech can make big data, but costs in the long term
In these examples, manual collection or distribution of data helps to navigate technological or political difficulties. Whether due to suspicious MPs, poor internet connections or the sheer difficulty of tracking rat infestations with machines, each organisation had to develop a way to collect and distribute data by hand.
The irony is that a lack of technological infrastructure – which necessitates these cheaper, low-tech solutions – is more expensive in the long run. The fact that swathes of land remain unconnected to the internet has forced companies in Africa like BudgIT and TransGov to improvise solutions to the problems in front of them. While this limits their start-up and operations costs, as time passes this manual labour becomes ever more expensive.
Collecting and distributing data by hand takes a lot of time and costs money. The savings offered through collecting data with automated systems and publishing them online almost always outweigh the cost they take to implement. In these three cases, they just need to wait for technology or politics to catch up.
(Picture credit: Flickr/Uchegod)