Some thoughts on datafication and the poor way writers think about IT and Africa

When it comes to thinking of IT and Africa, writers tend to lose their perspective and fall into one of at least two modes that drive me crazy. The first one is something like this, found in this article on Google in Africa, Googling Africa – By Dayo Olopade | Foreign Policy, where the author says:

Take Gmail, for example. Globally, the service has trailed those provided by Yahoo! and Microsoft. Magdalinski suspects it’s just too complicated for African modems. “Gmail is always loading with flashy chat and all this JavaScript,” he says.* By contrast, “Yahoo! loads fast — it works on a s— modem in an Internet cafe.” (As in the United States, users can opt to load a stripped-down in-box, but new applications like Google Chat to SMS — rolled out in Senegal, Ghana, and Kenya this year — require using the clunkier version.)

Note, it is not suspected to be the fault of Google, it is the African modems. In fact it is the case that Google (and lots of other service providers) develop Internet services with the assumption of high bandwidth. That makes sense when you are targeting first world urban markets. First world urban markets, and all urban markets to some degree,  have affluent populations in relatively small geographic centers, so of course they can handle web applications that are bandwidth intensive. It has nothing to do with African modems (or Indian modems or modems generally). It has to do with the adoption rate of technologies in various parts of the world.

Indeed, as this article shows, Bell wins nod to use wireless option in rural Web rollout – The Globe and Mail, rural Canada is also having challenges getting access to the same technology as their urban cousins. No one implies Gmail is too complicated for rural Canadian modems. That’s ridiculous, just like it is ridiculous when you talk about African modems. It’s a question of cost and innovation and implementation, not sophistication. The reason so many people in the world already have access to IT is because people continue to innovate in IT, continue to drive down costs, and continue to implement more and more IT so that more and more people have access to it. This will continue to happen in Africa and rural Canada and many other places. Focusing on “the place” may be easier than trying to understand and explain the limits of the technology, which is likely why this wrong mode of thinking crops up.

To see what I mean, consider Nokia. Unlike Google, Nokia is taking a different approach and trying to capture very big markets by driving down costs and deploying usable IT solutions to these markets. As this article,  Nokia Sees Cellphone Growth Among the World’s Poorest – NYTimes.com, shows:

On Saturday at dawn, hundreds of farmers near Jhansi, an agricultural center in central India, received a succinct but potent text message on their cellphones: the current average wholesale price for 100 kilograms of tomatoes was 600 rupees ($13.26).

In a country where just 7 percent of the population has access to the Internet, such real-time market data is so valuable that the farmers are willing to pay $1.35 a month for the information.

What is unusual about the service is the company selling it: Nokia, the Finnish cellphone maker, which unlike its rivals — Samsung, LG, Apple, Research In Motion and Sony Ericsson — is focusing on some of the world’s poorest consumers.

Nokia is focused on innovating and driving down the cost of deploying these IT solutions to these markets. And these solutions work in Africa and India and any place where you have potential customers with similar needs. It is a matter of matching up people with the right technology that fills their current needs.

While this is good for Nokia, the framing of this article is the second mode on writing about IT and Africa that drives me crazy, namely the moralizing that is attended to it. The line of thinking here is basically companies should roll out IT to Africa based on doing good, which to me is condescending. There is nothing wrong with companies doing good, of course, but companies should be providing IT to Africa and other parts of the world because it is good business, both for them and for their new clients. IT, education, microloans: these are just some of the things that enable people to achieve the ability to make a better living for themselves. In some ways, it allows for the development of small business, for the development of capital — or as G.B. Shaw defined it: “spare money” –  that they can use to invest and grow and develop their potential. And that means they can purchase more and achieve more and companies like Nokia and others can sell them more goods and services, to everyone’s mutual benefit. THAT is why companies like Nokia should be selling low cost IT to India and Africa and other places, not because Africans are “poor” and we in the West should be “good”.

In the West we forget that not very long ago in the 20th century, many parts of North America and Europe did not have access to electricity. Electrification was undertaken, not just because it would provide more and more people with electricity to light their homes and power their  radios and appliances, but because it meant greater mass production could be undertaken. Greater mass production meant that more goods could be produced, it meant that jobs could be created so that people could purchase those goods, and it meant that they could have light at night so they could study and better educate themselves and improve their future and the future of their children. Electrification provided many goods, but it wasn’t just something provided to be “nice” or “upstanding”. It was something that mutually benefitted many, and continues to do so.

The same has been happening with datafication, too. Like electricity, it first was deployed to urban centers before spreading out to other parts of the world. And like electricity, sometimes it will be used for the benefit of work. Sometimes it will be used for education or leisure. In any case, providing it and using it will be to the mutual benefit of all. It will be beneficial for the users of IT and the data it provides and it will be beneficial to IT companies that provide the goods and services. The sooner that happens, the better, for everyone.

Finally, two things. One, I mentioned Africa, because I see a more simplistic way of thinking when Western writers write about it more so than when they write about India or parts of Asia or the Americas. The problem is the way of thinking, be it concerning Africa or any part of the world that is developing.  Two, this these are my own thoughts and opinions, and do not necessarily represent those of my employer.

Thanks for reading this.

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