Directors’ Note

Leap-frogging to the data universe – our vision and plans


From the Bayer-Monsanto merger to the take-over by Walmart of Flipkart and KPMG’s generous offer to the Kerala government to rebuild Kerala – all events in recent history – there is a single, seemingly innocuous thread that connects them all – the old story of the pursuit of power, but through the new age elixir called digital intelligence.

Today, control over human societies is predicated on the capability to amass huge volumes of richly diverse data – of people, social or natural phenomena, or even, things. Welcome to the Big Data age and its wondrous promise of prescience. With Cambridge Analytica and closer home, the Aadhaar debate, the devil in the data is now a relatively commonplace story. We understand that data bestows the power to trace the particular and endows the gift of reason to generalize the future. Some of us familiar with the field also understand that the social itself is a product of data power harnessed by the already powerful.

We are at a point where democracy and its institutions seem terribly enfeebled, as the rapacious corporation and the callous state seek an unbounded power to rule over society. Our emerging work on digital technologies in agriculture reveals a new ecosystem – an inevitable disruption of farming as we knew it, as the chain from farm to fork is getting datafied. The new player in the block is the platform that offers inputs like seeds and fertilizer, input advisories over mobile telephony, linkages to fintech, market access through e-tail, and most importantly, logistics support. Assuming that the new organising logic of agriculture – known by the buzzword e-commerce – is indeed beneficial in terms of livelihoods security to the marginal or landless farmer (despite the obvious dependencies it will generate), there are vital questions here – how input decisions will be made; whether they will follow the tastes of the urban consumer; how such a shift may affect subsistence, if the corporation prefers the efficiencies of large scale contract farming that invariably displaces small players; how the data chain of the farm to table ecosystem will be exploited for profit and what public interest implications of this may arise; etc.

The fact that traditional middle men and markets are also exploitative, leaving little bargaining power for the marginal farmer cannot be denied. However, the fallacy here that wholesale corporatization will offer reprieve to, and lift, the farmer from her distress is to ignore the lack of public policy support that has plagued agriculture in India. A wholesale shift to data-driven overhaul of agriculture that privileges productivity and consumer preference at the cost of rural livelihoods (including diverse farming practices) of a large majority would be a clinical decimation of small life worlds in favor of Big data and Big Agritech.

While some ambitious plans in the direction of new data infrastructure to support farmers are on the anvil, a back-to-the-drawing-board approach is imperative, so that from the centre to the state and local governments, digital infrastructure, local data ownership models and public data initiatives can be put in place, and indeed, sectoral policies – such as in agriculture, logistics, online commerce etc. – can be updated.

Our view is that a nuanced approach to data governance and digital intelligence is vital; data is not antithetical to development. Data from the Indian railways on unreserved ticket bookings has been used to build a big picture of migration. The clincher is – how does this truth get reflected in policies that regulate migration (and its deep roots), as if people and their rights matter? Also, how can public data owned by private corporations such as Uber, be governed in the public interest?

A huge public awakening in this regard is most necessary. In our work we find that public consciousness has certainly moved, but we may be going from the frying pan of ignorance to the fire of hyper-anxiety. A reductionism in data related debates is evident all over, including in the critical work of digital rights NGOs, whereby all data related intrusions tend to be treated as privacy concerns. Such a worm’s eye view cannot see the mammoth frame. As the New York Times argued in end September 2018, Senators asking Big Tech – Amazon, Google and Twitter – “what Congress can do to promote clear privacy expectations without hurting innovation?” were clearly barking up the wrong tree. The article observes; “the problem (today) is unfettered data exploitation and its potential deleterious consequences — among them, unequal consumer treatment, financial fraud, identity theft, manipulative marketing and discrimination.” To this list, we must add, coming from a Southern perspective, the citizen rights of the poorest who are being rendered totally illegible in the public eye through the crafty and brutal consolidation by Big Tech over material, data and discursive resources.

The idea of privacy, precious as it is, ends up becoming a smokescreen – erasing from the frame how privacy-compliant and consent-based use of data can still be completely contemptuous of people’s right to be left alone, in the sense of free societies that can help individuals thrive.

Unfortunately, the information state is a willing ally to the data hungry corporate. Making people from the developing world aware of these political economy trends and enabling developing country governments take the right steps to build data and digital policies is the most urgent task that confronts us as societies and faces us as an organization.

Southern feminists have always critiqued the state for its unrelenting control over women’s bodies, but they have also demanded public investment in high quality health care for women. The line between good governance and state interference is to be drawn and redrawn through the tried and tested, and irreplaceable, democratic process of participation and deliberation – which would certainly benefit from hybrid methods of traditional and digital.

The tragedy that these processes are today held to ransom by manipulation of public sentiment through newer and newer platforms (the latest indigenous social network in small town India used by politicians being ShareChat) is in itself a vindication of the crying need for revisiting norms and laws regulating our digitally mediated public sphere. How else are we going to take on the vicious hatred for the marginal citizen that is expressed with toxic disinhibition in the mainstream of our everyday lives?

It is in this direction of lifting the veil of economic and social injustice and evolving progressive positions and models to strengthen development rights of countries of the South and the rights of the marginalized, particularly women, that we have moved in the past year. Our vision, while chipping away at the instinctive tendency of the state to be omniscient, also calls upon the state to recognize the need for a new social contract. The research, program intervention and advocacy we have undertaken point to new possibilities for governing data and alternative platform models. Our networking has opened up new vistas for collaboration and our publishing and teaching have helped us stay relevant and outward looking.

The reality of the digital sphere today is the hegemonic push from the US and other countries of the global North for deregulation of the digital economy in trade policy negotiations. Through our work on Governance of the Digital Economy, we have called out the ‘e-commerce for development’ agenda (promoted often in the name of the wealth of opportunities it will ostensibly open up for women entrepreneurs in developing countries) as a red herring that disguises the new wave of colonization through platform companies. We devoted a lot of energies to educating activists from trade justice movements such as Our World is Not for Sale and trade negotiators of developing countries about this risk in the context of WTO and RCEP negotiations. In addition to these efforts to highlight the importance of preserving ‘policy space’ for governance of the digital economy for countries of the global South, we have also been actively exploring the new governance frameworks that are required at the national level to further inclusive development and human rights in the context of platformization and datafication of all socio-economic sectors. This has been made possible through our IDRC-supported, cutting edge, multi-country research project ‘Policy Frameworks for Digital Platforms’.

We have also been at the forefront of building a new discourse on data, by drawing the linkages between personal data protection and the economic paradigm of pervasive data extractivism — pushing for a reimagination of privacy as a positive right and the connections between data governance, ESCR and the right to development.

AI ecosystems are advancing and enmeshing themselves into our social and economic systems at an unprecedented pace. We would like our research agenda to therefore encompass the AI trends in India to develop a critical reading of the phenomenon in key development sectors. We will continue our advocacy efforts at global and national levels to build a counter-discourse on governance of the digital economy that approaches the issue through a Southern lens. As the secretariat of the Just Net Coalition, we are also trying to raise funds for convening a cross-movement dialogue on economic justice in the datafied world that will bring progressive civil society organizations together to reexamine development priorities in the current context. Our ongoing association with feminist networks and member organizations of Our World is not for Sale network will be pivotal in this regard.

As data-fuelled misinformation makes and unmakes elections around the world, and flame wars on Twitter fill in as empty placeholders for dialogue, the public sphere stands at a crossroads today. Our work on Digital Rights, Development & Democracy responds to these trends, recognizing also that the datafication of governance itself demands new frameworks for citizen rights in every arena. There is an urgent need for interventions at the level of research and policy that can grasp and address the new realities of this paradigm. There are also efforts needed that can tap into the opportunities that data affords to expand civic engagement and work for better democratic outcomes. Our work this year has dealt with these new developments through research as well as theoretical intervention, and we will continue to address these issues as part of our future plans.

We are particularly excited to have the opportunity to expand our footprint into the area of urban governance and work with youth in Bengaluru to build and realize a bottom-up spatial data system that can allow communities to put data to work for self-defined development goals and outcomes. We believe that a data-for-development discourse that is locally produced and articulated has great potential in reaffirming community voices in governance agendas and hope to contribute learnings to the domain through this project.

Prakriye, our field resource centre, has been a truly valuable learning ground for us in nurturing women’s leadership at the grassroots and ensuring their voices can break into the public agenda. Through Dhwanigalu, this year, we have seen young women, question, challenge and open themselves up to new paths, charting their own complex journeys towards asserting their sense of agency and identity through digital technologies. However, for some time now, we have also recognized that working towards the empowerment of marginalized women and girls can only go so far unless the overarching threat of gender-based violence in public and private spaces is tackled. This year, through Namma Maathu, Namma Jaaga (Our discourse, our space), we hope to begin working towards a supportive community ecosystem for addressing gender-based violence against women and girls in rural spaces. Another significant aspect of our work will be to initiate learning dialogues around hegemonic masculinities for adolescent boys and young men.

In ICTs and Education, the focus of our work has always been to strengthen educators’ agency and capacities to integrate technology into learning processes that are meaningful and relevant. This is a goal we continue to strive towards by building teacher networks, collaborative resource repositories, and facilitating curriculum design and knowledge building. In the year ahead, we seek to add newer strategies to this repertoire by offering blended courses for teachers and teacher educators through institutional collaborations. We are also enthused by the prospect of scaling up our work and reach in new geographies, through our involvement with the ‘Teacher Professional Development@Scale’(TPD@Scale), a global alliance for school quality improvement.

As front runners in the domain of Gender Justice in the Digital Society, we have endeavoured to provide critical and constructive frameworks for action. We are the proud creators of the first policy toolkit on mainstreaming gender in e-government, and are grateful to the Korea-ESCAP Cooperation Fund for their support in this regard. For important feminist networks such as BRICS Feminist Watch, Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) network and Global Alliance on Media and Gender, we have become the ‘go-to’ interpreters of emerging developments in the digital economy and society for evolving their policy stances in this area. We have expanded feminist articulations of the digital in new directions, talking about data governance in terms of both negative and positive rights. At the national level, we have stayed ahead of the curve with our reflections on Digital India strategies. Through empirical analyses of legal-institutional frameworks on gender-based cyber violence.  we have made significant contributions to this area, nationally and globally.

We would now like to ‘deep dive’ into this issue with support from the Web Foundation, and undertake research on gender-based cyber violence with youth in 3 states in India. We are also entering into a collaboration with DAWN to produce issue papers on women’s rights in a transforming digital context for systematic advocacy on gender and economic justice. We are also thinking of greenfield research areas such as fintech and its gendered impacts, exploration of the idea of ‘fair discrimination’ in favor of women and gender minorities in algorithms, and gender and e-commerce.

One of the daunting tasks we took up in the year 2017-18 was a revamp of our organizational website. The process took over several months and was a mammoth effort for the team involving many discussions about the look and feel of the new site, the content organization. The challenge in this process was arriving at a decision about how IT for Change should position itself in the domain of digital rights work among organizations with similar mandates. The process also prompted a rethink about our domains of work and how we should redefine ourselves in relation to our mandate and strengths.

The eternal quest of the non-profit remains securing stable and adequate lines of funding. In this regard, this year has been full of learnings for us. We experimented, with mixed success, with crowd-sourced funding platforms. We also tried our hand with running a fundraiser to raise resources for Dhwanigalu, our program with adolescent girls. We targeted CSR funding and private philanthropy trusts and foundations and were invited to apply and submit proposals to the Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiative (APPI), the Edelgive Foundation and Kotak Mahindra. These efforts had a high success rate, as we now have two new CSR mechanisms to support our field programs and projects.

Working with international consortia for fund raising has been another invaluable learning experience for us, helping us build new repertories within our organization, but bringing home the truth about the changing nature of funding and the rising importance of platforms and networks.

It would be no exaggeration to say that despite the necessary challenges of staying afloat that confront progressive NGOs, our never-say-die team spirit has consistently enabled us to push the boundaries, bringing us accolades. We have been recognized widely – from local to national and global spaces – for our perspectives and competencies as thought leaders and doers. From multilateral organizations like the OHCHR, ILO, WTO, UNESCAP, to inter-governmental policy and capacity building agencies like South Centre, the state and central governments in India, and national and global social movements, our role in being able to provide the foundational connectors for a fresh conceptualization of rights and development in contemporary conjuncture is well acknowledged.

But there is no room for complacence. As global justice becomes tied to algorithmic and data justice, we stay committed and eager to expand our impact footprint. Towards this, we aspire to create an online media space on technology justice for highlighting the particular intersections between the digital and the social that bring to the fore an integrated approach to civic-political and socio-economic rights.

We dedicate this report to the late Michael Gurstein (1944-2017), a pioneer and visionary in the field, who was our friend and guide for over a decade.

We recall his words:

The Internet (was envisioned) as the foundation for a distributed economy, as a platform for an egalitarian society and as the means for structuring a broad-based participative democracy …. Regrettably, overpowering commercial forces have to a very considerable degree…largely obliterated that vision, but the technologies themselves still are such as to afford and even promote such possible outcomes.

Now is the time for boldness.

now is the time to leap.


IT for Change