Data Ethics Club: The Algorithmic Colonization of Africa#
This is summary of Wednesday 6th April’s Data Ethics Club discussion, where we spoke and wrote about the Real Life Mag article The Algorithmic Colonization of Africa by Abeba Birhane. The summary was written by Huw Day, who tried to synthesise everyone’s contributions to this document and the discussion. “We” = “someone at Data Ethics Club”. Nina Di Cara and Natalie Thurlby helped with the final edit.
This week at Data Ethics Club we read The Algorithmic Colonization of Africa, an article written by Abeba Birhane. The article, set in the backdrop of the second annual Conference on Technology, Innovation, and Society (CyFyAfrica2019) which aimed “to bring forth the continent’s voices in the global discourse.”
The author discusses the uphill nature of this endeavour and how western influences coming in with their own tech solutions do more harm than good. We discussed ideas of utilitarianism, white saviourism and what we (as westerners ourselves) should be doing to learn more effectively from other parts of the world.
What Western ideals influence the way we build technology in the Global North? What should we be doing to learn more effectively from other parts of the world?#
We are all so busy trying to solve problems but we are not asking if they are the right problems to solve. We want money and we want to look philantropic. We also want to look cool solving problems (shoutout to Elon Musk and his submarine comes to mind).
Under what circumstances should we do businesses in Africa/abroad in general? Providing goods and services? There’s models of partnerships with governments/community groups that are the purely extractive neo-colonial models which are too prevelant. There has to be a fine line there because if there’s a corrupt government/group you’re working with, how do we know the money we’re putting in is going to the right place? An example a little closer to home is UK PPE contracts where there was ‘apparent systemic bias’ in award of lucrative PPE deals favouring firms connected to Tories, so this issue is one that is prevalent everywhere.
What we would have liked to see more of in this piece?#
Who gets to decide where is too corrupt? There were not enough case studies in this article. We would like to have known more about what kind of models work and what models don’t? This article felt like it was taken every common strand of data ethics issues applied in the African context. Whilst it was a good introduction if you don’t know about data ethics, it was also quite broad and not very focussed. We were missing the information we needed to form a full opinion on all this.
We would have liked more detail about the nuanced dynamics within Africa about who wants want, and what the points are contention are between people about values and outcomes. Why are people willing to exploit fellow people? Is it seen as being beneficial for the local economy perhaps? Birhane alluded that more African values could be brought in - but we would like to know more about what those values are and learn about these.
Name, Role, Affiliation, Where to find you
Huw Day, PhDoer, University of Bristol, @disco_huw
Euan Bennet, Senior Research Associate, University of Bristol, @DrEuanBennet
Zoë Turner, Data Scientist, Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust