Cover image courtesy of Stephen Shankland, CNET.
Written by Alex Zhang, The University of Oklahoma
In the current Information Age, data has become a hot commodity for nearly every modern technology-driven company, even the humanitarian aid sector. In a data-driven world, people and information are the goods, providing companies and “Big Data” valuable human by-products: personal, behavioral, and sentimental data. In the world of humanitarian aid, the “humanitarian data ecosystem” is pumped full of information including maps, satellite imagery, social media activity, and more. Because data is in such demand and is easily monetized, modern technology companies have jumped on Africa to extract data due to a general lack of privacy laws and infrastructure. This relatively novel phenomenon is known as “data colonialism” and has spurred a contemporary “Scramble for Africa”. This paper will analyze the logistics company Zipline and its effects on the African countries it services. Zipline is a young American company headquartered in San Francisco, California that designs and operates delivery drones that carry medical supplies from distribution centers to Rwanda and Ghana. These supplies range from medication, blood, plasma, and more recently, COVID-19 vaccines. Zipline has successfully delivered over 100,000 medical packages in Africa and continuously operates its network of drones non-stop. Although there is no doubt that Zipline is a powerful humanitarian force in Rwanda and Ghana, its constant presence in African airspace and strong ties to the Silicon Valley must be examined, as its position in Africa could pose sustained economic damage to African industries.
Headquartered in the Silicon Valley, Zipline is an American medical product delivery company that utilizes unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to rapidly distribute critical medical supplies in their serviced areas. Zipline’s drones are designed and operated by the company, specifically tailored for the purpose of fast delivery of small payloads. The company’s on-demand instant delivery system is lauded as the world’s largest, with millions of miles flown delivering medical shipments in African countries .
Figure 1: Zipline drone launch from Stephen Shankland .
As previously mentioned, Zipline currently operates in Rwanda and Ghana, enabling medical deliveries in just a fraction of the time compared to traditional truck delivery methods. Before Zipline, medical supply delivery in Rwanda was very unreliable and relatively expensive, due to the lack of road infrastructure in the country. In fact, only 25% of Rwandan roads are paved. If there was inclement weather or any road blockage, medical deliveries simply could not happen, and when possible, would take 4 hours in the best-case scenario. Now, Zipline delivers medical products in 15 minutes, rain or shine . Zipline began operations in Rwanda in 2016 and now operates two distribution centers in the country, providing coverage to 80% of Rwanda. Expansion to Ghana began in 2019, with four distribution centers covering 500 health facilities (Figure 1). These distribution centers deliver a staggering 600 deliveries a day, minimum .
Figure 2: Zipline’s four distribution centers and areas of service in Ghana from Kwasi Gyamfi Asiedu .
Because of the high volume of drone deliveries, Zipline’s drones are constantly in the air and operating, collecting and storing data on patients, transportation routes, product supply and demand, and more. This persistent data collection, though seemingly benign, is part of a larger problem that is affecting Africa as a whole: data colonialism.
Data colonialism has been referred to as a modern-day Scramble for Africa, where “large-scale tech companies extract, analyze, and own user data for profit and market influence with nominal benefit to the data source” . The original Scramble for Africa involved European nations taking over control of the majority of the African continent, stripping the land and people of raw resources like rubber, copper, gold, and more. Corporations, even centuries ago, played a central role in this colonial expansion. These corporations were sent with the blessing of their respective governments to create wealth in Africa no matter the damage dealt to the local people. The fundamental concept of this exploitation was the basic goal of maximizing economic gain while minimizing their own cost. This concept holds true in the current modern-day Scramble for Africa, and there are many parallels between it and the original Scramble for Africa. Although much less violent, data colonialism still ruthlessly and relentlessly extracts the commodity of data from African countries unable to protect themselves. This is also reminiscent of the original Scramble for Africa where colonists extracted raw resources from the land, processed and refined them in the West, and sold them back to the same African countries. In the same way, African manufacturing industries were stunted as a result.
Rather than developing plantations and mines, today’s colonists build communication infrastructures and other information collecting mediums like social media and internet connectivity to harvest, amass, and store all sorts of raw data. The raw data can be used for various purposes, such as improving business strategy, predictive analytics, and selling to other corporations for profit. Data, at a fundamental level, is a representation of humans in a digital format. Languages, habits, preferences, medical records, and even facial structure are all valuable insights for companies to utilize to increase revenue generation. Modern technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning rely on data to learn and grow, and as these tech industries grow, the Silicon Valley’s thirst for more data also grows. AI capabilities – understanding everything from shopping patterns to political inclinations or self-driving vehicles – can only ever be as strong as the data sets that feed them, and the potential to improve and iterate current artificial intelligence functionalities will be constrained without diverse data sets. AI is not the only area where data is sought. In fact, data influences and drives decision-making in nearly every industry in the world.
High tech companies use everything at their disposal to keep technology innovation barreling forward at a light-speed pace. Countries in Africa, far from being decolonized, are exposed to the pushes and pulls of Big Tech’s unbridled rise; human byproduct data is used to improve corporations’ technologies, cement their economic and political influence, and essentially occupy billions of people’s everyday lives. In 2017, data overtook oil as the world’s most valuable commodity, with some even declaring that “data is the new oil” . Access to data is extremely valuable to countries and corporations, even more so than capital, natural resources, and weaponry. Although data fuels many of the most impressive and impactful technological innovations, the cutthroat nature of Big Tech causes corporations to acquire their needed data in less than ethical ways to remain at the forefront of both technological advances and market dominance.
This decentralized data mining from African locals without their permission through communication networks built and controlled by Western tech companies defines the modern concept of data colonialism . According to University of Copenhagen professors Silas L Marker, Mads Vestergaard, and Vincent F Hendricks, there are four key actors in data colonialism:
1. The Western tech companies that develop and distribute the technology and infrastructure that serve as the data extraction mechanism, advertisement targeting, and advertisement distribution .
2. Advertising and marketing firms that utilize the technology and data provided by the aforementioned tech companies to create targeted advertising campaigns for different groups .
3. Local companies, groups, and organizations that pay the aforementioned firms to push a certain agenda .
4. Local citizens that serve as sources of data and act as target groups for all three aforementioned actors .
Damaging Effects of Data Exploitation in Africa
Just as European colonists viewed the African landmass as a resource-rich continent ripe for the taking, modern-day technology colonists view the African people as resource-rich producers of data ripe for harvest. Africa is the continent with the most countries while being the least connected, and as a result is extremely culturally, linguistically, and racially diverse. These qualities make Africa a treasure trove of data and have attracted the attention of dozens of Western tech companies who have begun to establish a digital foothold on the continent. With a population nearing 1.4 billion people, the sheer amount of information waiting to be gleaned is too much for tech firms to ignore. The data can be collected and marketed as an asset to companies and political entities that depend on understanding their target audiences to push political messages and policies or market goods to citizens, thus increasing their bottom line. Massive tech giants have already made moves in Africa, like Google with their internet balloon program for Kenya  and Facebook with their 37,000-kilometer-long subsea internet cable that connects 23 different African countries . While these projects seem to benefit the affected African countries, user data is being relinquished to these tech companies as they expand their global reach for profit.
This business model of covertly collecting and monetizing human data is already established in the West. In the United States, Silicon Valley tech firms provide “free” online services like social media and platforms and search engines in exchange for the user’s information, tracking the user across platforms and monitoring activity, searches, clicks, and more. This data is then sold to advertisers to be used to create personalized advertisement experiences for target consumer groups. This results in huge profits for both corporate parties involved with little to no gain for the data producers. While this is standard practice in the West, the pursuit of this business strategy in countries with poor data privacy laws, poor infrastructure development, and no meaningful competition turns the practice into a form of colonialism rather than an honest business venture.
Not only do African countries not benefit financially from Western data extraction, but the practice is also actually doing damage to the countries’ economic and technological growth. Data colonialism is impeding Africans’ ability to grow and mature their own technology and companies, as their native datasets are already being taken and exploited by Western tech companies. In addition to this, data colonials prevent African companies from taking the wheel in technological innovation, perpetually relegating African nations to act as consumers of Western tech that is ironically developed using their own data.
The Humanitarian Data Ecosystem
Like most businesses, humanitarian organizations also utilize data to improve their processes and strategy. In the current digital age, “the basic service provision activities of NGOs and humanitarian aid organizations have become data collection processes – they are now one and the same” . Data collection of the “helped” is inevitable, from medical records to topographical maps and population distribution information. This collective of data is known as the humanitarian data ecosystem, as the data is collected, used, and shared between organizations. Humanitarian data is used for many different purposes, such as “improving situational awareness of assistance providers; connecting affected populations to response activities; and monitoring and evaluating the delivery of aid to populations” .
However, responsible data collection and usage are critical. By collecting and using data, humanitarian aid organizations must subject themselves to domestic laws and regulations to not abuse data protection laws, which are already sparse in African countries. Africa’s vulnerability to data exploitation is apparent. Figures from the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development show that 96% of European countries have data protection laws in place, while only 50% of African countries do. Despite positive intentions, humanitarian data is often collected from and used on vulnerable communities where consent is usually overlooked. Because of a widespread lack of data-related policies in place, there currently are no ethical standards for the collection and use of such data . Humanitarian organizations must therefore be vigilant in the ways that data within the humanitarian data ecosystem is used to avoid inappropriate and potentially destructive use of data.
Zipline’s Role in Data Colonialization
Zipline, as both a Silicon Valley tech company and humanitarian organization, is in a position to both perpetuate data colonialism in Rwanda and Ghana, and to potentially collect and use humanitarian data in an unethical way. On their company website, Zipline boasts its data collection capabilities: every single interaction with a Zipline drone is tracked, with a system that surfaces and analyzes the data that they capture. This data is used to improve their supply chain and logistics, according to the website. In an interview with Databricks, Zipline’s CEO Keller Rinaudo states that Zipline has “had to build all of these interconnected systems and they’re all generating huge amounts of data,” and that “Zipline is a data-driven company,” when speaking about their massive network of distribution centers and drones. Zipline has also developed its own electronic database of patients for various information like blood demand, supply, and usage that is accessible to the Rwandan government . These points further reinforce the strong data collection actions of the company. Although it doesn’t seem to be malicious, as the data is used to improve their service, there is still a strong potential for risk of unethical data collection and using African nations as a feeding ground for free data that can be monetized in other ways.
There is also the experimental nature of the company. Many international organizations have come under criticism for experimenting in vulnerable African countries that do not have the same laws and regulations as Western nations. Zipline is a prime example of this experimental approach, as it tests its technology in Africa with the eventual goal of exporting it to the United States and Europe” . Due to lack of infrastructure, Zipline swooped in to fill in a gap that the founders detected. This gives off a strong feeling of both the “white savior industrial complex” and a strong Western capitalistic desire to monetize these gaps in developing countries.
Due to the nature of the company, it is important that Zipline is held accountable for its actions in Rwanda and Ghana. Zipline’s website and public material make no mention of consent related to its constant data collection by their UAVs. In addition to this, their experimental approach to UAV delivery technology in the health sector runs on the thin line between humanitarian work and human experimentation. It is indisputable that Zipline continues to have a major positive impact on public health in the countries that it services, but the sheer amount of data that the company collects can be problematic, depending on how the data is collected and used.
This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.
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