Pressing Need to Ensure Responsible African Digitalisation


BRUSSELS (IDN) – The profound importance of data is underlined by the fact that the United Nations is measuring progress towards the 17 ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with the help of a global network working together to ensure the new opportunities of the data revolution.

Youth are being referred to as the "torchbearers" of the 2030 Agenda and have a pivotal role to play both as beneficiaries of actions and policies under the Agenda and as partners and participants in its implementation. Indeed, both explicitly and implicitly, the 2030 Agenda calls for the development and activation of sound, evidence-based youth policies and actions to ensure its full realization.

Mirjam van Reisen and Linda Broekhuizen, Members of the Dutch Advisory Council on International Affairs (AVI), argue that the Netherlands should take a lead role in ensuring responsible African digitization, also to combat youth unemployment on the continent. The Council recently released the advice ‘Digitalisation and Youth Employment in Africa’.

In its advice, the Council points to the difficult social and economic situation for youth as a consequence of the corona pandemic. What is required, in their view, is more digitalisation for economic opportunity and data ownership on the continent.

"The digitalisation of society and the economy has accelerated during the coronavirus crisis. Employees are working from home, and education has gone online, including in Africa. But this trend does not include everyone," van Reisen and Broekhuizen point out.

Only a quarter of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa has access to the internet, while half the global population is now online. This development has reduced the prospects of work and income for millions of young Africans. The main obstacles are the lack of electricity and connectivity.

"This is about to change, however," according to the Council advisors. Big tech companies like Google and Facebook are ready to close the gap, with plans not only to provide services as online platforms but also to build internet infrastructure with embedded services. In this development, it is important to safeguard values such as privacy, data protection and freedom of speech.

That is why the Advisory Council on International Affairs recently advised the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the Netherlands, as a trading country with a digital leading position, uses its expertise to ensure that the African continent can also make the transition to a digital economy in a responsible manner.

The AIV report explains how the coming waves of digitalization and automation will impact on employment and job opportunities for young people in Africa, and how Dutch development policy can respond.

In that spirit, an innovative European programme, launched in 2018, has meanwhile responded actively to the challenge posed by COVID-19 pandemic.

The reference is to the GO FAIR programme embodying principles which emphasise the capacity of computational systems to Find, AccessInteroperate, and Reuse data with none or minimal human intervention. This is because humans increasingly rely on computational support to deal with data as a result of the increase in volume, complexity, and creation speed of data.

Different issues have necessitated the transformation from the concept to implementation. One of these, according to a report by Mirjam van Reisen and Francisca Oladipo, is that the implementation of FAIR guidelines in science data has become a reality for researchers in the European Union, member states and institutions in other countries.

Van Reisen is professor of Computing for Society, at Leiden University and Professor International Relations, Innovation and Care at Tilburg University. Francisca Oladipo bridges the gaps between research and practice in the areas of Theoretical Computer Science. Currently, she leads the team responsible for setting the Research Agenda for Kampala International University and garnering more international linkages.

The public research university in the Netherlands has joined universities in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Zimbabwe in the Virus Outbreak Data Africa Network (VODAN) FAIR Data initiative.

The VODAN FAIR Data initiative is supported by the Philips Foundation, whose mission is to provide access to care for underserved communities. "With this donation, the Philips Foundation supports the establishment of a Virus Outbreak Data Network… to ensure that data-intelligence is available to support an effective response to the new coronavirus," said Margot Cooijmans, the Philips Foundation Director.

The Philips Foundation aims at reducing healthcare inequality by providing access to quality healthcare for disadvantaged communities through innovation, reflecting our commitment to United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 3 (Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages) and 17 (Revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development).

The requirement of implementation of FAIR guidelines in science data became a reality for researchers in the European Union, member states and institutions in other countries.

The focus in the first phase was on the installation of the FAIR Data Points (FDP) in different locations with different environments. Aliya Aktau, a master student at Leiden University, had tested the FDP for health data in Kazakhstan during an internship with its Ministry of Health, as a concept without an online realization.

This proposition was then further developed and adapted to the implementation in the COVID-19 context. Outreach to Ministries of Health in Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Tunisia was positive. Researchers developed a FAIR-equivalency analysis of regulatory frameworks for digital patient health records and FAIR guidelines.

Data ownership was defined with the hospitals and clinics with oversight of the Ministries of Health, while data privacy regarding the data subject was also maintained in full compliance of the regulatory frameworks in each location as well as with the EU’s General Directive of Data Protection. Based on this work, approval was obtained to develop a proof of concept in six countries in Africa.

In the next phase the FAIR Data Points were established in nine locations in Africa as well as the Leiden University Medical Centre (LUMC) and these FDP’s all called home – meaning that these were findable for algorithms. [IDN-InDepthNews – 04 November 2020]

Image credit: GO FAIR.

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