3 reasons inclusive data and digitalization go hand-in-hand

Mothers partake in a citizen-generated data project in Kilifi, Kenya. Credit: Elphas Ngugi.

The rapid growth of digital technologies has transformed every aspect of our lives, from enhancing cost-effective production to streamlining financial transactions and much more. Amidst this digital revolution, there is a pressing need to prioritize inclusion, ensuring that digitalization benefits not just a select few but also the most vulnerable who have traditionally been left behind.

In a previous post, I painted a picture of why we should move forward with the Leave No One Behind agenda. I argued that inclusive approaches to data should be everybody’s aspiration, regardless of whether data is your primary focus. Now, I want to take this a step further, illuminating the connection between inclusive data and inclusive digitalization.

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While digitalization propels us into the future, prioritizing inclusive data ensures that this journey is marked by agency, equity, accessibility, and empowerment for all. Here are three reasons why digitalization and inclusive data must go hand-in-hand: 

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1. Designing inclusive digital solutions requires inclusive data. 

The 2023 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) report underscores that persistent digital divides, both among and within countries, hinder widespread progress and the use of new data sources. Developing digital solutions with a foundation of inclusive data — data that accurately represents the needs and aspirations of diverse population groups — fosters solutions that are relevant and impactful on the lives of all people. This approach tailors digital solutions to a wide range of needs, resulting in more effective interventions and faster improvements in people’s lives. Digital technology that is developed solely based on a narrow set of data will not adequately address the needs and challenges of marginalized communities. 

Consider Rwanda, a country which, like many low- and middle-income countries, faces a “last mile” problem in delivering life saving medicine and services due to lack of adequate transportation, communication, and supply chain infrastructure. In this context, postpartum hemorrhage is one of the leading causes of death for women. The Rwanda National drone delivery program, in partnership with the company Zipline, allows blood transfusion clinics to place orders via text message and fulfill them within 30 minutes, saving many lives. Inclusive data makes it possible to address such real-world problems. 

2. Inclusive data shines a spotlight on bias and discrimination in digital technology. 

One of the most compelling reasons to emphasize inclusive data in discussions about digitalization is its potential to counteract bias and discrimination inherent in technology. Unchecked, digital technology reflects the biases of both the people who create it and the training data that underlies it. Algorithms and automated decision-making systems can, intentionally or unintentionally, perpetuate biases present in historical data. Inclusive data and processes, incorporating diverse perspectives and experiences, help us to identify and rectify these biases. However, even technology developed for inclusive purposes may introduce bias if not carefully monitored.  

Take as an example the City of Rotterdam, which deployed a machine learning algorithm in 2017 to generate risk scores for fraud among welfare recipients based on personal attributes such as age, gender, and language ability. The algorithm was found to discriminate based on ethnicity and gender. Investigations also revealed evidence of fundamental flaws that made the system both inaccurate and unfair. In 2021, the city suspended its use following a critical ethical review commissioned by the Dutch government. 

Because digital technology reflects biases in society, it’s almost impossible to fully eliminate bias in digital systems. But inclusive data and processes that involve people add nuance and reveal where bias is creeping in.

3. Digital technology can accelerate the production of inclusive data and inclusive processes.

Digitizing processes related to data collection, storage, and analysis exponentially accelerates data production by breaking down barriers such as physical distance, language barriers, and societal stigmas. This increases the availability and accessibility of data, providing valuable insights on forms of exclusions. 

For instance, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, the Women Safety smartphone app allows people to report incidents of domestic violence. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the app was updated by the Punjab Safe Cities Authority as lockdowns intensified. Women could use the app to report domestic violence incidents. As soon as the message with location coordinates was received, designated teams were mobilized for an immediate response, heading to the caller’s precise location. Such initiatives enable real-time reporting on gender-based violence through technology, facilitating better analysis and visualization and allowing individuals to provide data safely and conveniently. 

The importance of using technology to capture the views and opinions of communities in this way cannot be overemphasized. Equipping communities with digital literacy skills and access to technology allows them to actively participate in data creation, sharing, and utilization of data, enriching inclusive data which reflect their experiences, realities, and priorities.

A fair data and digital future

The symbiotic relationship between inclusive data and digital technology makes it essential to tackle both in tandem. Elevating the role of inclusive data within conversations on digitalization is not merely an option—it is a moral imperative. The intersection of these two realms holds the potential to reshape the trajectory of technological advancement toward equitable outcomes. By embracing inclusive data, we uphold the values of fairness, representation, and empowerment, ensuring that the digital future we build is one where every individual, regardless of their background, can partake in the benefits of digitalization.

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