African data , Mosiac

The African Data Muddle.

The first thing that comes to most African minds when you mention data, is the data bundles that telcos in the continent offer. This isn’t about data plan bundles, even though it might as well be, as it is also a problem. Although the broadband services offered by telcos could use some improvements, Africans have more access to the internet than ever before. There is a scarcity of data (information) in the African continent and every industry feels the strain.

The term data describes a body of gathered facts, to simply put data is information. From data we can create value based on extracting knowledge and insights. Data is vital in ensuring good decisions are made, and enables the effective allocation of resources.

Most of the titan companies in the world are data-driven from the ground up, while some of these companies are carving out additional revenue streams via dealings with advertisers and third parties by selling the data that they’ve amassed. There is a common global consensus ongoing, that data is where the values lie.

Big data, one of the biggest buzzwords in tech symbolizes the increasing amount of data and various types of data that is now being collected. This types of data range from personal data, transactional data, web data to sensor data. What distinguishes Big Data from the “regular data” of before is that the tools we use to collect, store and analyze it have had to transform to handle the increase in size and complexity. These latest tools on the market, gives us leverage to analyze datasets in their entirety, without having to employ sampling. Allowing us to gain a far more complete picture of the world around us.

With all the talk of Big data, we can not overlook the fact that big data does not uniformly model the world. In the world’s datasets, there’s a whopping gap that represents the African continent.

                                             Image credit: Demographica

There’s is both an abundance and a scarcity of data in the African continent, while it’s puzzling at first, one gradually realizes that it’s a recurring phenomenon with the issues facing Africa. Africa has a diverse set of economic activities, businesses, jobs and workers that are neither regulated nor protected by the state, all which constitutes its informal economy. This dense informal economy that is rife across the continent is together an opportunity and a challenge for policy makers.

Although vast amounts of data points are created in Africa everyday as billions of cash transactions are made, but only a pinch of these transactions are recorded. While Africa is a swarm of information, these information tend to disappear after transactions are made.

The off-the record transactions, combined with unstructured text and social media data generated by the mobile users of Africa can not be inserted into into our current storage facilities.

In informal cash-based systems, data from vendor sales is rarely translated into an accessible and modifiable format, rendering it effectively useless.

                                                                                                           An african vendor.

One would think that in the sectors that are more formal and regulated, like the telecoms and banking sectors that have considerable amount of consolidated data will conscientiously mine this data or at least make it accessible, but they will rather hoard it.

Limitations in data production, quality, access, and use are stunting the African fight to end extreme poverty, enact better policies, and ensure better living for its people. This is also evident in the fact that the amount of Data portals in Africa is small when compared to other continents. The inconsistency in data collection in Africa, will in some cases, allow a bias to be introduced to make the economy/investment situation look better than it really is.

In today’s global, uber-connected, hyper competitive business landscape that is rapidly changing, the thriving companies are not merely just capturing good data but are taking it a notch further by dedicating resources to enhance the human and technical capital needed to understand and gain insights from the data.

Government and businesses that make data-driven decisions have a superior capability to react more quickly to economic and market changes, and improve their competitive advantage. As data and measurement evolve, the companies that can collect and clean the most data will be able to put that data to use to solve real business problems. The companies with the most data are best positioned to win, but they have to make good use of that data.

Since more of the world’s information continues to move online and become digitized, it means that persons can start to use it as data. Social media, online books, music, videos and the likes have all added to the astounding increase in the amount of data that has become available for analysis.

As analytics improve, productivity and profitability gaps between companies that use data effectively and those that don’t will expand.

The internet is demonstrating  that several of our existing data systems no longer meets objectives. There is a tilt in the emphasis from central to distributed computing. Distributed computing architectures are normally less vulnerable to failure and more accessible for everyday users. The modern information infrastructure is about movement of data, one that does not require large scale thinking and investment to deliver.

A cool app to you is a lifesaving technology platform powered by great data.”  – Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, Founder FlutterWave

While there isn’t a doubt of the existence of a data desert in Africa, some businesses have taken it upon themselves to develop fertile grounds. Like Paylater who are using mobile technology and Machine learning to create a credit history for people who take out loans from them and Cars45 who are gathering and pooling data anytime a customer brings a used car to one of its inspection and sales centers and also sell its data to parties interested in the used cars space. Meanwhile in East Africa, Kenya, mSurvey is harnessing consumer data by leveraging mobile subscriber networks, using text message-based surveys. Millions of  consumers engage with mSurvey through structured conversations collecting information on demographics, consumer preference, and geolocation. The company also integrates with mobile wallets and payment platforms to quantify offline consumer spending habits and trends. cMapIt uses data and software to enable people in Nigeria track the social issues in the country.

It is Important to map out infrastructure failures by African countries and make these datasets open. – CmapIt

Various factors are responsible for the seemingly pertinent situation of inaccessibility of data in Africa. Factors such as insufficient manpower and personnel involved in research and innovation, poor state of infrastructure, the political nature of interference in access to data, insufficient research think tanks, lack of funding, as well as unavailability of centralized data banks amongst others.

There is also the preoccupation with the social uses of data and data privacy. If information cannot be trusted, it becomes almost impossible to gain full value from its use.

Data governance (DG) is the overall management of the availability, usability, integrity and security of data used in an enterprise. A solid data governance program includes a governing body or council, a defined set of procedures and a plan to execute those procedures.

Corporate bodies as well as Governmental bodies can benefit from data governance because it ensures data is consistent and trustworthy. This is critical as more organizations rely on data to make business decisions, optimize operations, create new policies, products and services, and improve profitability.

Policy makers and the African governments should begin to put in place measures to set up national, regional and continental data banks, increases access to funding for local think tanks and researchers, invest in infrastructure and capacity building and development which will in turn guarantee availability of qualitative and quantitative data which can be further explored for the continued growth and development of the continent.

Moreso locally driven solutions such as the tremendous work Cmapit is doing and that of Msurvey is immensely part of what the continent needs to catch up to the information revolution and bring about economic change. Huge amounts of data are produced everyday we just need to find innovative ways to record, clean and make use of them, to gain the insights we need to take Africa forward.

Africa might have come late to the information revolution, but can it learn from the lessons of those who have travelled this path before? Like the UK who tried to centralise its health system that ended up a massive failure, costing  £10bn.

While there’s an improvement in the continent’s data skills capacity, although still in plenty need of urgent development, the shortage of datasets from the continent means that the people with data skills will mostly work with data unrelated to the continent.

Better consumer insight has a crucial role to play in government planning as much as it does in the private sector. Therefore it’s paramount that Africa promptly curb the data dearth that is existing in the continent.


A data scientist that enjoys writing about technology in Africa.

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