Everything is data, even the reading of this article (online) through computer, tablet or smartphone.
By definition, data is a set of qualitative or quantitative variables – it can be structured or unstructured, machine readable or not, digital or analogue, personal or not. Traditional analysis tools and software can be used to analyse and “crunch” data. We all are creating heaps of data every day, through our online, and even offline, activities.
Big Data is a term used to describe a set of tools, methodologies and techniques to find value and insights into the raw and complex datasets. In the context of Pakistan, I will touch upon four aspects of Big Data - recognition, value, use and ownership.
In the case of recognition, while there are some private sector companies banking on collection, dissemination and analysis of the data, a visible absence of public sector focus is notable. Even the relevant authorities such as the Ministry of IT and Telecom are focused more on regulatory, that too personal data, aspects rather than recognising Big Data as an asset with huge potential.
In fact, the private sector players are mostly foreign companies rather than the national ones.
The issue of value follows lack of recognition, thus ignoring the potential. According to a report of MarketsandMarkets, the global Big Data market size will grow from $138.9 billion in 2020 to $229.4 billion by 2025 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10.6%.
Bigger and more connected countries will generate more data, resulting in more value for the Big Data. The benefit of that value, however, depends on who gets hold of the Big Data and puts it to use.
Pakistan, being the fifth most populous country, with quite significant IT and connectivity infrastructure, is a goldmine of data.
The use of data, particularly Big Data, is a huge missed opportunity, but not too late though. Using Big Data and analytics is probably one of the best governance tools available at present, particularly for resource-constrained countries like Pakistan.
It doesn’t take much to analyse the Big Data, develop decision support systems, transparency tools and service delivery mechanisms. Although not exactly in the realm of data, there is importance of using blockchain technologies for ensuring transparency and traceability in governance systems, mechanisms and tools.
Ownership of data is probably the biggest challenge, not only for Pakistan. It is still a fluid area that needs development of good practices, norms and regulatory frameworks. There are, however, a few things that many countries are doing such as data domicile and data privacy requirements. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation is one such example.
In Pakistan, there is a legislative initiative in progress titled Personal Data Protection Bill 2020. This, however, is focused on personal data protection and not encompassing enough to take care of troves of data that is gathered by various operators, including foreign companies, in Pakistan.
Moreover, the aforementioned draft bill focuses more on misuse of personal data but is silent on who and how much someone may use it, thus extracting value that may have been someone else’s.
The draft bill also has loose data retention and data domicile requirement, thus, giving carte blanche to data users.
Data is being generated every second, captured and put to various uses by one or the other. As consumers, we are willingly, yet unknowingly, giving data for free in the form of bits and bytes but once it is put together in the form of Big Data, these bits are converted into billions of dollars in direct and indirect value.
Who should take care of this? Regardless, someone out there is certainly doing it, if not the state of Pakistan.
Big Data is an asset and a capital. It has a value only if that value is discovered. Think of the world’s largest companies - often one would term these IT or tech companies, such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Alibaba. These are mining on data, Big Data precisely.
Data keeps on adding value the more it is used. There is, however, a catch that you cannot catch the data once it goes out of hands. Every passing moment is adding to the quantity and value of data being generated in Pakistan but it is also taking the ownership and use further away.
The government of Pakistan should provide an enabling environment for the private sector to benefit from the Big Data, develop analytics and related tools to be used in businesses and governance, but most importantly develop a regulatory framework to deal with the data ownership issues. A reactive response in this area is not even an option.
The writer is an international economist
Published in The Express Tribune, October 12th, 2020.