Decolonising data: How we can navigate Africa through the unknown

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One of the world’s greatest explorers was African.

His name was Abubakari II, and he was a Malian king who led 2 000 ships across the Atlantic in the early 14th Century. Depending on which historians you ask, the fleet either reached the Americas nearly two centuries before Columbus or was lost at sea.

Abubakari did not make it into the history books – instead it was European explorers like Vasco da Gama who got to redraw the maps; to create the narrative of the “Dark Continent.” Unsurprisingly, these navigational tools and accounts were wildly inaccurate. Early maps of Africa contained such interesting features as a forest where the Sahara Desert should be, and the Zanzibar coast on the west side of the continent instead of the east.

Even today, with satellite imagery having plotted out our world, our maps are distorted. The most commonly used map remains the Mercator Map, drawn up in 1569, and which severely underestimates the size of places like Brazil, India and Africa. And in case you think this is a relic of your childhood textbooks, it’s the same map used as a basis for Google Maps.

It’s also a powerful reminder that Western-centric understanding heavily influences the way we perceive the world. Thankfully, this is changing, with projects like Missing Maps helping to mark down the roads (and dirt tracks) less travelled in places like Malawi and the DRC. I’ve spoken before about what3words and how geospatial projects like it can help deliver services to places that were inaccessible before. The truth, however, is that there remain plenty of unexplored areas in our understanding of African societies.

Here be dragons

What would have happened if Abubakari possessed the tools to understand what lay beyond the end of his known world? Would he have been the one to shape the way we view the world? Would the course of history have changed forever?

Abubakari’s story is a relatable one in a time when we are navigating our own waves of disruption and widescale change. Searching for solutions to problems like climate change, water scarcity and poverty can seem like sailing blindly into the massive ocean. And as the king’s fleet of 2 000 shows, throwing resources at a problem can’t make up for a lack of understanding about the environment around you.

We do have one big advantage compared to the voyagers of yesteryear, though. As ambitious as Abubakari was, he was ultimately limited by the technologies available – he had no choice but to speculate what waited past the edges of the familiar. Today, using everything from geospatial technologies to AI and predictive analytics, we can delve into the uncharted much more confidently.

However, to really get the most out of these technologies, we can’t just rely on the same approach to data as the West. We need to create our own platforms and tools, while finding ways of harnessing our local resources.

The question is how do we do this? Let’s look once again to the explorers of old for some guidance.

Use non-traditional data sources

If you believed “official” sources of information on Africa in centuries past, you might think the continent resembled your average front page of The Daily Sun – packed full of cannibals, lost cities and people with dog heads. European explorers who engaged with African societies found a very different place.

The same remains roughly true today – traditional demographic information on African nations is often lacking. True understanding of what’s going on in a country means looking beyond official government and census data into alternative data sources like mobile surveys, social media and self-reporting apps.

With the absence of real-time consumer inflation data in Nigeria, Standard Chartered Bank launched a mobile app that encouraged people to take pictures of everyday food prices. Meanwhile, South African ecology app Morphic is using Google Images, existing public domain photos on social media and stock imagery to help conduct traditionally expensive research work.

Build on what’s available

The best cartographers didn’t start from scratch; they built on knowledge that had already been gathered. As inaccurate as some of the early maps could be, they still offered a good starting point for plotting new destinations and routes.

Today, the key to understanding what data you require is understanding your desired outcome and where the gaps in your current knowledge lie. Once you know where no man’s land meets the edges of the known world, then you know where to send your data explorers.

Africa-centric data projects are out there – like the African Development Bank’s fantastic Statistical Data Portal or Code for Africa’s openAFRICA data repository – that offer a foundation for understanding your challenges and opportunities. With that foundation in place, it’s time to find partners who can provide access to additional data you might need. From monitoring xenophobia to uncovering voting irregularities, many organisations around the world have partnered with Ushahidi to crowdsource the data they need but can’t gather themselves.

Talk to people on the ground

For every successful expedition that took place during the Age of Exploration, there were plenty more that ended up as tragic footnotes. To successfully map out terra incognito, you need guides who know the region, and plenty of local support.

For modern day explorers, this means investing in customer analytics, inclusive data policies and local innovation challenges. Take Water 4 Life, which used Standard Bank’s IdeaScale platform to ask people from Africa for practical ideas to combat water scarcity. The result was an influx of submissions consisting of everything from solar-powered water purification systems to eco-friendly bottle showers. 

More recently, the KnowYourCity campaign used information sourced directly from informal settlements to ensure that the communities affected most by problems have a role to play in finding solutions.

Hundreds of years after Abubakari ventured into the great unknown, it’s time to finish what he started. The time has come to redraw the traditional map of Africa, based on faulty assumptions and inaccuracies, by creating our own African data models and methodologies.

How do you think we can remap the global perception of Africa as a continent? What examples have you noticed of African organisations putting their own spin on data collection?