Data + Politics
East Africa’s digital data are not only a commercial resource. Records from mobile communications, finance, and media are also reshaping governance, democracy, and elections. With Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya all holding elections by 2022, this is a particularly pressing topic. The granularity of information available about individual voters, their behaviours, and proclivities is transforming the practice of politics in East Africa and beyond. The accumulation of data from voters may offer an opportunity to develop policies that respond to citizens’ interests, desires, and demands. Both Uber and IBM, for instance, are using mobility data in Nairobi to improve traffic management. Yet there is also a dark side. Cambridge Analytica, the infamous political consulting firm, developed many of the methods it was to later use during the Brexit referendum and the 2016 American elections when working in Kenyan elections. They are not alone: politicians, parties, and consultants are pioneering new forms of online data gathering and advertising. A recent report from Senegal, for instance, explains how the incumbent gathered dozens of data points on 3.5 million voters in order to structure his campaign.
How do the business models of social media (focused on engagement and virality) change the nature of political discourse? Does this represent a more responsive electoral system, or one characterised by elections designed by data engineers in a lab? What are the options for storing securely and controlling this information within a democratic system? And how might data ethics inform politics in contexts of gendered and classed inequality?