Datafication and Digital Rights in East Africa

Lead Research Organisation: London School of Economics & Pol Sci
Department Name: Centre for Africa


Sitting within the theme of Digital Rights, the Datafication and Digital Rights in East Africa Network brings together social scientists, technical practitioners and policy advocates to explore ways to render the 'black boxes' around datafication and algorithmic power with regard to citizens' social and economic lives in East Africa more transparent. It aims to lay the groundwork for challenge-led research that interrogates how datafication is experienced, interpreted and contested in two sectors of everyday life, the public sphere and the informal economy, and in three Eastern African countries: Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia. At the core of this network is a partnership structure that includes technical practitioners and researchers at its core. Led by Professor Alcinda Honwana, network partners provide a breadth of sectoral expertise and country-contexts, and research and practitioner perspectives.
This Network recognises there are both huge opportunities and challenges around datafication in social and economic activities. In policy and academic domains, attention to the ways public-private partnership can leverage the developmental potential of big data is growing, for example, using data analytics to bring financial services to informal entrepreneurs. Equally, there are strong concerns are voiced over the ways that technology companies harvest and commercialise the data used to 'train' algorithms underpinning their platforms, in ways often unknown to the user. This Network accepts and confronts both of these perspectives, setting up a collaborative structure through which to unpack the multi-dimensional, complex and context specific features of datafication in East Africa.
Network partners will operate through three working groups: two sector-focused working groups exploring datafication processes in, first, the public sphere and, second, the economy, and a third working group on Knowledge translation and public engagement. Each working group will cover social science, policy and technical perspectives. The two sector-focused working groups will be tasked with developing frameworks of understanding that take into account five complex and intersecting dimensions of datafication processes: 1) Back end processes; 2) Front end user experiences; 3) Data Governance and management, and their linkages to citizen rights; 4) Organisational structures and practices; and 5) the regional and international context. They will explore these dynamics in their sector area, as well as discuss together at network-wide workshops to consider cross cutting practices and issues. The task of the third working group, in conversation with the other two, will be to set up channels for wider engagement and conversation around the network's conversations, specifically building on the partners' experience and wider positioning. This includes using local-language podcasts to spark conversation, supporting capacity building of youth and students around visualising insights, and creating an interactive online journalism feature. This emphasis on wider engagement is crucial in order to ensure that the network remains driven by and linked in to priorities and challenges around rights on the ground. These efforts will form the foundation for developing collaborative grant proposals to dig deeper into processes of datafication in different contexts, what they mean for digital rights, and how governance, regulation and technical bodies might respond, including possibilities to inform technological development.
The concrete outputs of the Network in its first year will be: 1) established and sustainable patterns of working collaboratively; 2) active communication with policy and practitioner bodies in East Africa; 3) new frameworks of understanding of datafication processes in the economy and public sphere; and 4) a concrete and ambiguous grant proposal to extend research and engagement, and inform technological development.

Planned Impact

Facilitating knowledge translation and impact is central to the 'Datafication and Digital Rights in East Africa' Network's overarching objectives:
1)To establish a sustainable and equitable network of interdisciplinary researchers and practitioners, from East Africa and internationally, that is capable, and has begun to deliver, effective collaborative research and research translation activities; and
2)To develop collaborative and ambitious research proposals that are driven by policy and practitioner challenges in East Africa around the datafication of social and economic activities.
The former objective indicates an aim to create a Network that has practitioners and research translation activities at its core. The latter specifies an aim for future Network activity to address challenges in the realisation of digital rights for citizens, and in policy and technical development. To achieve these objectives, we will capitalise on Network partners' networks and existing strengths, and maximise the impact of Network conversations by bridging different stakeholder groups and connections, and by drawing on the expertise and experience of our investigators in challenge-led research and development. This includes leveraging wider stakeholder networks within which our Network Partners are influential and active members, most notably led by Professor Okello-Orlale and her linkages through the Africa Regional Data Cube.
During the first year, knowledge translation and engagement activities will be coordinated and led by a working group whose objective will be to continually share and spark wider conversation to inform the Network's priorities and activities. Professor Honwana and Professor Okello-Orlale will provide leadership and guidance on external engagement activities. While a plan of action will be further detailed and agreed at the Network's inception workshop, we propose the following four engagement activities as a basis for wider stakeholder engagement:
1) Website of the project and twitter account that provide a portal, updated in real-time, to share network activities and wider relevant resources.
2) Three podcasts on the topic of the developmental potential and challenges of datafication: These will be aimed at building on Network conversations, furthering awareness and discussion around emerging issues and possibilities. The podcasts will be produced by journalists from Kenya (English and Swahili editions), Ethiopia (Amhara and Tigrinya editions) and Somalia (Somali edition) and will be broadcasted by local radios.
3) Small seed funding (i.e. £300-500) to support innovative ideas around how to visualise and share the frameworks of understanding coming out through the network activities. This small competition will be aimed at students and young designers, and coordinated through the Network partners' spheres of influence, specifically at Strathmore University.
4) Outreach Meetings and Speaking Engagements at the LSE, King's College London, the University of Cambridge, Strathmore University and Somali Public Agenda to link up the Network activities to wider academic and policy communities in the UK and East Africa. These outreach meetings will promote and expand from the podcasts through more in-depth face-to-face conversations with policy, academic and development actors.
In sum, this programme of activities is aimed at creating effective spaces for two-way conversations between the Network and the different stakeholder groups interested in digital rights and economic and social development in East Africa. It aims to do so by building on Network Partners' strengths, and supporting and encouraging the talent and activity of local journalists and artists, thereby providing for innovative and active spaces for engagement.


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Description The COVID 19 pandemic forced us to rethink the forms of engagement with our partners that we had envisaged in our initial proposal. Because of the impossibility to organise and attend workshops in presence, we created online spaces of discussion that enabled us to sustain and enrich a conversation on the state of the debate on Data rights in Africa. As the main achievement of the work funded through this award, we have held a webinar series with relevant stakeholders in the African countries at the centre of our study. The presentations were then turned into blog posts that we hosted on the project website (funded by the award). On the basis of this conversation, we thus realised that data rights are an increasingly relevant topic for policymakers and the public at large in Eastern Africa. However, the speed of digitisation processes is outpacing the discussion on how to guarantee that the benefits derived from datafication are evenly distributed. Regulators are struggling to catch up with the construction of digital ecosystems premised upon frictionless flows of data. We realised that policy-relevant research is particularly warranted in three specific areas: the datafication of the public sphere; data surveillance and protection in digital humanitarianism; the convergence of data rights and labour right in the Future of Work in Africa agenda.
Exploitation Route The key insights from our webinars and internal conversations have been published as blog posts on the project website. Four more posts are scheduled for publication in the coming months. Moreover, two papers based on the insights that were presented in the webinar series are currently under review at two peer-reviewed journals.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Financial Services, and Management Consultancy,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description Knowledge translation and impact are embedded in the core aims of our Network: with aims to create a network with practitioners that is actively engaged in back and forth exchanges, and to set out a network structure and programme of research that continually addresses key challenges around rights for citizens through the datafication of everyday lives in East Africa. To do this, our first year of activity has laid the groundwork, and achieved key intermediate outcomes, to foreground 1) a challenge and practitioner led research; and 2) ongoing interactions with rights activists, policy makers and NGOs in East Africa. This past year has given evidence of an emerging impact on rights activists and NGOs, through a clear focus on network building and structures for identifying and responding to practical challenges in three sectors: financial, the public sphere, and humanitarian. COVID-19 proved to be a key challenge to direct engagement with policymakers, activists and NGOs working in digital rights in the key sectors of focus. We took a two pronged approach to addressing COVID-19 related engagement challenges. First, we set up a series of webinars, involving practitioner and research partners, and organised around practical work and challenges in digital rights (e.g. in humanitarian data collection; digitalisation of savings groups). This provided the basis for knowledge exchange through which to ensure that the research was oriented to current and future-looking challenges on the ground. Second, Network partner, Strathmore University, led in organising workshops on the ground with journalists, rights activists and NGOs working in data and development in Kenya. These have been designed to expand on the virtual webinar themes, and develop policy briefs that encompass key practical insights. This combination of activities has established participatory network structures, which privilege practical challenges around data rights and incorporate key private and third sector actors in East Africa, to provide for an evolving and sustained impact on planning, regulation and consideration of rights by private and third sector actors in key areas of datafication in East Africa.
First Year Of Impact 2021
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description Digital Shelter Network Building 
Organisation Digital Shelter
Country Somalia 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Our team provided Digital Shelter with access to our network of partners and engaged with Digital Shelter researchers to define their contribution to phase 2 of the project.
Collaborator Contribution Digital Shelter researchers contributed to our seminar series and our blog with a post on Somali Women In Digital Spaces
Impact Blog post "Somali Women In Digital Spaces" (multidisciplinary collaboration involving digital humanities, gender studies, political economy)
Start Year 2020
Description Somali Public Agenda Network Building 
Organisation Somali Public Agenda
Country Somalia 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Our team provided Somali Public Agenda with access to our partners and discussed the terms of the engagement for phase 2 of the project.
Collaborator Contribution Somali Public Agenda contributed to our seminar series, blog and project discussion.
Impact Blog post "Understanding digital inclusion and exclusion in Somalia" (multidisciplinary contribution involving digital humanities and political economy)
Start Year 2020
Description Southern Africa Network building 
Organisation University of Johannesburg
Country South Africa 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We provided the University of Johannesburg with access to our network partners and discussed the terms of their involvement for phase 2 of the project
Collaborator Contribution The University of Johannesburg is currently organising a workshop, sponsored by our project, to build a network of partners across Southern Africa
Impact Workshop on Media policy and regulation in Southern Africa, to be held in April 2021
Start Year 2021
Description Project website 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The link to the website was circulated on social media by the communication officer at the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa, LSE
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Webinar series 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact An average of 15 people attended our webinar series, contributing to the discussion around the following topics:
-Search auto-complete algorithms, African language data and contentious politics (Somali/Swahili/Amharic comparisons) (September 24 2020)
-Datafication of informality/"Grassroots Economic Associations and Digital Technologies" (October 15 2020)
-Data-driven (critical) humanitarianism (October 26 2020)
-Inclusion/exclusion in Somali digital space (November 26 2020)
-Gig economy and the future of work in Africa (December 7 2020)
-Humanitarian data governance in Somalia (January 28)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020