A group of Fitz alumni and students have founded a new organisation to develop meaningful and rigorous conversations around the use of data. As they publish their first report unpacking the landscape of digital finance in Africa, we sat down with one of the organisation’s early members, Arthur Bessis, to hear more about the Good Data Initiative.
As the Good Data Initiative assert on their website (https://www.gooddatainitiative.com/gdi-blog), the internet revolution has fundamentally transformed our lives and the data that we generate. We now live in a world where anyone with a smartphone has access to 1,000,000 times more computing power than Apollo 11, the rocket that put the first human on the moon. Access to data are increasing exponentially. Moreover, the sheer quantity of data being constantly produced – whether bounty or burden – clearly necessitates new solutions.
Identifying these issues is not new, but the Good Data Initiative – founded by Fitzwilliam students and alumni – is looking to innovate in the space and language that is used to interrogate the issues. Those who work on different dimensions of data tend to retreat into disciplinary comfort-zones, creating a very real risk that we will fail to communicate and collaborate when needed most. As Arthur explains, “many of the technologies already governing our lives today have been constructed in silos — that is, they are built by a small number of businesses and engineers with little input from ethicists, policy makers, or experts from other disciplines. It makes sense that these disciplines find it hard to connect: they often lack a common language and platform to effectively communicate with each other.”
As the increasing quantity of the data involved necessitates the use of algorithms, this lack of human, interdisciplinary debate is not just limiting but deeply concerning.
What is the Good Data Initiative?
Founded in March 2020 by Fitz alumni Ariel de Fauconberg and Bernhard Gapp, GDI was conceived both to meet this global challenge (‘connecting bytes with the bigger picture’) and to respond to a far more local and practical need. As Arthur explains: “The GDI core team saw bright, motivated students searching for meaningful opportunities during the COVID-19 pandemic. As internships were cancelled, job markets tightened up, and organisations shifted to remote work, we realised that there were limited alternatives for ambitious, curious young minds to gain meaningful early professional experience, upskill themselves, and truly stand out. GDI aims to fill this gap. Drawing on our leadership team’s prior professional experiences with best practices established by leading management consultancies, technology companies, and top research institutions, we are creating a truly unique learning environment. As GDI grows, we are achieving this by offering structured project management systems; a strong community of like-minded peers; and a unique mentoring network.”
Growing from the initial two co-founders to a small, Fitz-based team of four, GDI expanded quickly during the summer and fall of 2020. The team has since on-boarded new researchers throughout the last year and is now made up of over thirty five members spanning five continents, with members based at academic institutions including Cambridge, LSE, Harvard, and MIT.
What does the Good Data Initiative do?
GDI brings together motivated young researchers interested in the data economy and – through a programme of mentoring and structured project work – offers them an opportunity to bring expertise from their formal studies to interdisciplinary investigations. GDI members’ curiosity sparks the discussion of possible areas of research. Projects are then selected collectively with guidance from the core research leadership to best draw on the researchers’ different areas of expertise and create a strong, well-matched team.
The first report – published earlier this year, and downloadable here (https://www.gooddatainitiative.com/digital-finance-in-africa) – looks at the phenomenon of digital finance in Africa. As the report’s introduction explains, ‘understanding the past, present, and future of this environment empowers us to evaluate whether digital finance is likely to function as a catalyst for a better economic future across the African continent, post-COVID-19 pandemic — and if so, the mechanisms for how this might take place.’ While many research projects have sought to address the un- and underbanked across the continent, GDI’s report is unique in that it surveyed the entire landscape of digital finance across the continent, from digital payment services to the future of wealth management.
The project started when GDI team members identified a curious paradox: in Africa, there is both relatively low access to bank accounts and financing yet also enormous potential for technological integration and entrepreneurship. Phase One of the team’s work focused on identifying specific, key levers enabling the growth of digital finance, and mapping – at least superficially – the enormous variation across the 54 countries in Africa: regulatory systems, levels of education and technology implementation etc.
Phase Two focused on the researchers unpacking growth dynamics across four distinct sectors: the role of digital payments (and risks associated with cash); access to credit for consumers; the ability to invest; and finally, mechanisms for saving. Much of the team’s research beyond traditional literature reviews and database analyses took place via stakeholder interviews with entrepreneurs, people working in banks, regulators, and investors across the continent. Restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic were often flipped to benefit their research: while normally face-to-face interviews would have been hard to arrange, video-conferencing and an enforced period of lockdown opened new doors.
Since its release, interest in the team’s Digital Finance in Africa report has already picked up steam. The core research the report was released on has been accepted for an oral presentation at the International Conference on Sustainable Development (ICSD) at Columbia University, and will be presented by team members this September (2021). The report has also received on-the-ground interest across the continent, both traveling by word-of-mouth and featuring in a finance-focused newsletter sent out to [13,000] subscribers, leading the team to be contacted by several groups interested in developing further partnerships based on GDI’s work. Finally, one report author – Fitz alum Nnaemeka Obodekwe – has since founded a digital lending solution (Lenkie) based on market gaps found while researching the report, and is now part of Entrepreneur First while growing his venture.
What next for the group? And how to get involved?
Apart from producing high-quality, impactful research, GDI’s other main goal is to build a sense of community among young change-makers keen to shape the data economy for good. “Now we have a core group of 30 researchers located around world, we can exchange ideas and raise questions prompted by our local observations. Combined with the interdisciplinary nature of GDI, this allows us to properly explore important data-related phenomena that we believe might otherwise not receive sufficient attention.” When asked how the work relates to that of formal studies or institutional departments, Arthur is keen to stress the complimentary nature of the approach: “There is definitely a freedom in working across disciplines, and all GDI members try to research with flexibility – there’s a real opportunity to learn from others. And there’s something very exciting in being able to have a slightly ‘left-of-field’ idea, then find another researcher is also interested in the same phenomena and equipped to carry that idea forward from another angle to build a multi-dimensional, impactful project.”
Currently, GDI are working on projects relating to other key issues within the data economy, including newly created weapons feedback loops between private technology developers and armed forces (‘The Age of Autonomous Weapons’); identifying crucial gaps in oceanic data and what this means for accurately assessing and understanding humans’ impact on marine ecosystems (‘Digital Oceans: Open Data’); and mapping the fundamental shifts to the future of work alongside platforms and resource flows created by the online ‘passion economy' of influencer-creators.
If you are a student and would like to get involved in future projects, you can find out more on the organisation’s website: https://www.gooddatainitiative.com/