The politics of big data


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Four more years. Three words, posted to Twitter next to a photo of a newly re-elected Barack Obama on 7 November 2012, would come to be the most retweeted message in history with more than a million users sharing his victory message.

With the click of a button, it had shattered the existing record held by pop star Justin Bieber and remained in place until comedian Ellen DeGeneres tweeted a star-filled Oscars’ selfie the following year.

It was, for many observers, the embodiment of a US president who had just won two elections largely on the back of sophisticated data analytics and the social media. Tapping into the so-called Facebook generation in 2008 with more than 5 million supporters garnered using the platform, in 2012 his technology-driven re-election tactics earned him the moniker by The Washington Post of the “Big Data President”. He had not only plugged into a new generation of votes, but established a support base to continually engage using the same new technologies.

Outlined as a key case study in the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council’s latest report, The Future of Government Smart Toolbox, Obama’s rise to power in the digital age is in many ways symbolic of the nexus of government and Information and Communications Technology (ICT).

Then there is the UAE. When the Gulf nation launched the e-Government initiative in 1998, establishing Dubai Internet City the following year, it was in the early days of the world wide web and long before many nations, bigger economically and politically, had even given thought to using information technology in such a way.

Fast forward to 2014 and Dubai’s foreign trade in IT hardware and software now accounts for 18 percent of total trade volume, growing by 35 percent to AED237bn ($64.5bn) in the past year alone, while technology is increasingly becoming a “fundamental aspect of life” in Dubai on the back of ruler HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s smart city plan in which 1,000 government services will go “smart” in the next three years.

The UAE now ranks second in the world and first in the Middle East and Africa for government usage of information and communications technology (ICT), in the World Economic Forum’s Global Information Technology Report 2014 such is its reputation for incorporating advanced technology within government service delivery.

WEF managing director Espen Barth Eide says governments need to understand the changing relationship with their citizens, who are more informed and globally connected than ever before and as a result expect better and faster responses from their governments.

“People are getting new expectations, people are learning from other services, for instance their banking information, that it is possible to be connected to a service 24 hours, that you can get a speedy response to your requirements, that you can act as mobile, global  citizens,” he says. “I strongly believe that if governments are not able to innovate in the same way and reform their traditional tasks as well as new tasks in a new way governments will be left behind.”

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