The Sneakernet Reality of Big Data in Africa
August 5, 2013 Editor 0
When I hear people talking about “big data” in the developing world, I always picture the school administrator I met in Tanzania and the reality of sneakernet data transmissions processes.
The school level administrator has more data than he knows what to do with. Years and years of student grades recorded in notebooks – the hand-written on paper kind of notebooks. Each teacher records her student attendance and grades in one notebook, which the principal then records in his notebook. At the local district level, each principal’s notebook is recorded into a master dataset for that area, which is then aggregated at the regional, state, and national level in even more hand-written journals.
Finally, it reaches the Minister of Education as a printed-out computer-generated report, complied by ministerial staff from those journals that finally make it to the ministry, and are not destroyed by water, rot, insects, or just plain misplacement or loss. Note that no where along the way is this data digitized and even at the ministerial level, the data isn’t necessarily deeply analyzed or shared widely.
At the same time, there are countless international development actors – donors, NGOs implementers, etc – all collecting their own educational data, and only some of it is digitized. Twaweza’s Uwezo is a wonderful exception.
In this context, I see a major challenge, and therefore opportunity, in automating data collection and aggregation processes like this with management information systems to have accurate, real-time data for better decisions that also happens to produce rich, detailed big data, which can be made into open data and benefit all educational stakeholders – from children to their parents to teachers and administrators, right up to the Education Minister.
And to be realistic, until countries invest in this basic, unsexy, and often ignored level of infrastructure, we’ll never have “big data” nor Open Data in Tanzania or anywhere else.
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