By Mancoba Maziya and Mangaliso Mohammed
Data is increasingly becoming a new type of economic asset. Given this digital era of connected devices, mobile phones, artificial intelligence (AI), block chain, and robotics, The Economist in 2017 dared the world and declared data – instead of oil – the world’s most valuable resource.
To provide a little perspective on the issue, technology giants like Amazon, Google, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft are now the five most valuable companies in the world because of ‘big data’.
These companies collectively pocketed over US$25 billion in net profit in the first quarter of 2017. Amazon alone captured half of all dollars spent online in America in 2017 while Google and Facebook have a sizeable share in almost all the revenue growth in digital advertising in the USA.
Why make noise about these American titans of data? Because of one simple point: data is swiftly becoming the blood of the global economy. Public policy analysts, business executives, leaders, innovators, corporations, activists, and people in general, need information to make decisions.
In research, data enables researchers to generate (new) information for making rational social and economic decisions. These decisions can be major or minor, routine or strategic, and can be personal or taken as a collective. And in the grand scheme of things, these decisions have an impact on the current standard of living we give ourselves through our national development policies as well as can be a gift or a curse to the lives of future generations.
How can data be used as an instrument for social and economic development in Swaziland?
The country has entered the last remaining five years of implementing the National Development Strategy (NDS). The clock is ticking and the government and development partners need to be more precise and sophisticated in their different endeavours for implementing the country’s developmental agenda, as articulated in the NDS.
Data is an important starting point for generating information that can help us extract and deliver the gifts we are promised in the NDS: the promise of Vision 2022. How so? Think tanks like the Swaziland Economic Policy Analysis and Research Centre (SEPARC) are changing the way Government is doing its business through facilitating public policy dialogues, and conducting relevant and timely research to inform public and economic policy formulation, implementation and decision making. SEPARC does this through using data generated in the economy to evaluate and monitor how far the country has come, and provides policy solutions for the key socioeconomic challenges the country still faces.
Applying an evidence-based approach to government programmes enables targeted programming for poverty reduction and employment creation, prevents waste of resources, and highlights the opportunities to capitalise on. With rigorous analysis of data on Swaziland, the development plans no longer have to be a game of guesswork and it also dissipates the frustration and fear of change that, by and large, stems from lack of information.
While our endeavours in the use of data are yet to be in the likes of the Googles and Facebooks of this world, our data needs are much more pressing because we desperately need the information to generate the evidence for addressing our social and economic challenges so that all efforts can be geared towards the things that make our economy tick.
So where is all the data? Do we even have it?
Government, parastatals, NGOs, and individuals who actively participate in the economy all have data. It is just a matter of instilling a culture that values data so that every set of data is adequately captured, stored, and backed-up for enabling decision making in the country.
What we are finding is that most of the data within government is stored in physical form without proper electronic databases and systems for easy storage and access. And so, if the physical copies do not get misplaced they usually easily get into some state of ruin. It also makes it hard to keep track of all the data that is available, and for some departments, they only have to keep data for five years, after which they can destroy it or do whatever they think of it.
What is becoming clear is that a data economy holds enormous potential and opportunities in various sectors such as education, health, food security, building resilience towards natural disasters, resource efficiency, intelligent transport systems, and smart cities. Make no mistake, data alone is not inherently valuable. The value is created by working with it to innovate, invent, change business processes, and enhance decision making.
About the authors: Mancoba Maziya is a Data Specialist and Mangaliso Mohammed is a Research Economist at SEPARC. They can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. They write in their personal capacity.