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Can technology ‘decode’ developmental problems? by Oane Visser and Manasi Nikam

This article presents an interview with Dr. Oane Visser, Associate Professor in Rural Development Studies, at the International Institute of Social Studies. It shows ways in which technology can be used to address developmental problems. Dr. Visser coached six teams in a technological challenge about the ‘prevention of land grabbing’.

The Municipality of The Hague and the Data Science Initiative organized a hackathon for Peace, Justice and Security in November, 2018. It was supported by the International Criminal Court, NATO, Red Cross, World Vision and Asser Institute. The hackathon focused on creating innovative solutions using data science for problems focused on humanitarian disasters, fake news, evidence, emergency funds and land grabbing.[1] About 27 teams from 20 nationalities participated in this event. Monkey Code, one of the teams coached by Dr. Visser, won and was rewarded a cash prize of 10,000 Euros.

Here follows an excerpt from a conversation between Dr. Visser and Manasi Nikam.

Manasi: What was the purpose of the hackathon?

Oane: There are different kinds of hackathons. Often these are commercial, but this hackathon had societal and developmental relevance. The Hague being a city of peace, justice and security cannot promote these ideas without engaging with new technologies. The basic objective of the hackathon was to enable people sitting anywhere in the world to participate in designing solutions to developmental problems.

Manasi: What role did you play in the hackathon?

Oane: There were five different challenges, one of which was on preventing land grabbing. Asser Institute requested me to lead together the six teams that participated in this challenge. I guided these teams to understand the context of land grabbing and the kind of data they can collect.

Manasi: Can you tell me something about the winning team?

Oane: The winning team was Monkey Code. It is a tradition in hackathons to come up with funny names. The team had young staff members belonging to a Canadian, multinational ICT company.

Manasi: Just out of curiosity, how is it that a multinational company was interested in a hackathon that had social relevance?

Oane: The company does a lot of work for governments such as mapping migration patterns. So, they do have an interest in social issues.

Manasi: Can you tell us something about the tool that the winning team developed?

Oane: Yes. They combined existing databases such as satellite data, social media data, be it Twitter, real estate news groups and local media etc. to develop an algorithm that aims to predict areas in the world that are vulnerable to land grabbing.

Manasi: Do you think deploying technical solutions depoliticizes developmental problems?

Oane: Yes and no. There are some actors who promote techathons, big data, algorithms and think that they can do away with the difficult questions. But there are also others who acknowledge that one technical solution cannot solve the problem. In reality, a lot of politics comes in. For example: What does the algorithm focuses on? How do you define the problem? Who controls the solution? How is the data that is integrated being used? Those are the big issues in the usage of technology.  There is a strong belief among some that it is a magic bullet, very precise and accurate. Such thinking is a problem because the more social the data becomes, the less objective it tends to become.

Similarly, if the data is not valid, no matter how sophisticated the algorithm is, a coherent analysis cannot be made. There are also problems with someone taking the data out of the context and then analyzing it. The divide between Global South and North makes it riskier because many tech people are from the Global North or from emerging economies like India and China. Development projects around the world are implemented in collaboration with tech companies, who have their own particular interests such as getting data about citizens from developing countries. This gets partially subsidized by donor money under the facade of humanitarian aid.

Manasi: Why was the issue of land grabbing taken up?

Oane: Land grabbing is linked with local food security, dispossession of land, biofuels, energy and environmental problems. Around 2007, land grabbing caught attention globally, due to big deals being made in Madagascar and Ethiopia. But even before that, in Eastern Europe, a lot of land abandoned after the fall of the Berlin wall, was purchased by Western investors. Two advantages for investors who purchased land in countries like Romania have been 1. that the land was bought at a very low cost, meanwhile 2. geographic proximity to Europe means that the produce grown on the land can be sold easily in rich markets. Agriculture subsidies make it all the more profitable, as the amount of subsidy is linked to the size of the land. As the size of land owned increases, the amount of subsidy given also increases in relation to it.

In parts of Africa, Latin America and Asia, there is also displacement of people and dispossession of land. The projects in these areas target western markets. As a result, food security in the local area is affected. Similarly, in industrial agriculture the use of pesticides de-grade the environment. Due to the domination of western investors in the land market, buying land becomes expensive for young and local farmers. Countries like Russia and Ukraine often become targets of land grabbing as their land is immensely fertile and institutions are weak. In fact, local authorities are themselves often involved in land grabbing practices.

Manasi: What is the next step after this hackathon?

Oane: We had several ‘problem recognition workshops’ with one hackathon team from Leiden University and this summer we presented the process so far at the EuroDIG conference at the World Forum in The Hague. I have been attending various hackathons this year focusing on agriculture and development related themes. Designing data driven solutions for developmental problems mean different complexities and limitations compared to regular hackathons. I would be interested in seeing what kind of additional information the tech solution can generate once a more sophisticated version of the tool is available.

[1] https://impactcity.nl/monkey-code-wins-hackathon-for-good-with-solution-to-prevent-land-grabbing/

Image credit: Rainforest Action Network on Flickr


About the authors:

Foto-OaneVisser-Balkon-1[1]Dr. Oane Visser (associate professor, Political Ecology research group, ISS) leads an international research project on the socio-economic effects of – and responses to – big data and automatization in agriculture.Manasi


Manasi Nikam is a student of MA in Social Policy for Development at ISS. She has co-authored ‘Children of India’ a chapter on the status of well-being of children, for Public Affairs Index 2018.