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Unpacking data entanglement in the digital economy

Human rights, security, economics and technology make up the base of the digital economy, so we need a globally agreed-upon, interoperable definition of personal data.
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The acceleration of digital transformation has added urgency for governments and all ecosystem players to sit up and respond. Data has become a strategic asset for the creation of private and social values alike. Data is multidimensional and its use is multifaceted, multi-tiered and multi-confusing!

On top of this, we then take the data and apply it to trade, economics, social (known as economic dimension) human rights, security, peace (non-economic dimension) and more, trying to achieve a paradigm balance.

Traditionally, we have relied upon governments or tech titans to ‘guide’ the security of our use of personal information. Data flows, data states or even data nudging have never been understood holistically speaking by many, and thus have become the core focus when determining policy and protection of digital identity.

People’s data can be acted upon without their consent, and because that action can impact users’ lives and livelihoods, personal data is the core of our digital humanity.

But current definitions of personal data are unable to keep up with the evolution of personal data. For example, a year ago, COVID-19 tests as personal data did not exist.

Without a globally agreed-upon interoperable definition of personal data, no amount of regulation, advocacy, policy-making, data rights or open data projects can fix this structural issue.

Companies and institutions that oversee large amounts of personal data – such as ad tech, blockchain smart-contract oracles, biometric health services and social media – are figuring it out on their own by creating consortiums, engaging in self-regulation, or just doing the minimum to be legally compliant.

At the other end, policy-makers are implementing measures that often create more confusion and bureaucracy for companies and institutions. On the civil society side, data advocates are calling for responsible tech.

Traditionally, we have relied upon governments or tech titans to ‘guide’ the security of our use of personal information.

All these efforts will better serve our digital humanity if we are operating in sync with our understanding of personal data, with everything merging into a seamless world of interchange.

Data is at the core of modern society, from our digital footprint via e-mail and social media, through to big data analytics. An analysis of the role of data in digital policy reveals data is also at the core of most policy areas. Artificial intelligence is further increasing the power and relevance of data.

Cross-border data flows are challenged by policy decisions, in a similar way as the movement of goods, services and people across borders. Data localisation laws, for instance, require companies to keep data on servers located within national territory. The developments related to data have driven the need for discussions on data and digital policy, including data governance.

Every week we still scramble to understand the confused adversity that tech titans place upon us or our children. The digital economy commonly refers to an economy based on digital computing technologies, although we increasingly perceive this as conducting business through markets based on the internet. The digital economy is also referred to as the internet economy, new economy, or web economy.

With innovation at the forefront in terms of regulations, global digital platforms are in a privileged position to collect data at massive scale at point of access. This gives them significant advantage.

On the African continent we have no such larger player that immediately comes to mind. Imagine the data flow across borders between 54 African states!

With the battles between large players like India and China, termed as ‘aggressive’ policy-makers, and the European Union having a more ‘friendly’ policy, Africa has thrown itself into the ring with Nigeria taking the lead on data and digital policy. This is no easy task culturally, economically or even politically, but it must be done.

Broad value is to be based upon three pillars: growth, efficiency and framework. Macro trends must be taken into account, together with technology influences like artificial intelligence, blockchain and quantum computing.

Human rights, security, economics and technology make up the base of the digital economy. We may need a globally agreed-upon, interoperable definition of personal data − a start to the data journey. To do this, we don't need more definitions of personal data, we need to change the way that we define it, with contextual meaning.

As it stands, policy is essentially a statement of intent. It remains to be seen how governments will implement it in the coming years.

Meanwhile, we must continue to strive to close the digital divide and ensure no one is left behind in this fast-evolving data-driven digital economy. 

Lavina Ramkissoon

Conscious Creator I Trailblazer I Thought Leader

Ramkissoon, who writes in her personal capacity, is an AI mentor, strategist and trailblazer standing for the unification of the African tech space. She is a conscious tech proponent with expertise in strategy, technology and psychology, and their integration into AI, blockchain and ethics. This tech catalyst has roles as chairperson, director and founder across multiple industries, sectors and technologies − aiming to unlock the potential of the African AI arena. 

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