Exploring Options for a Big Data Network

A Scoping Exercise by

The Centre for Internet & Society

Bangalore, India in collaboration with ITS Brazil

Elonnai Hickok . Sunil Abraham . Amber Sinha . Vanya Rakesh . Tanvi Mani . Scott Mason . Vipul Kharbhanda



  • Understanding policy windows from Big Data research and working with relevant stakeholders to conceptualize the needs a network could fulfill.
  • Contextual review of Big Data across the global south and internationally to understand how Big Data is evolving across different contexts and possible points of intervention that such a network could make at a national or international level.
  • Researching types of networks from publicly available documentation to understand potential network structures.
  • Interviews and surveys with relevant organizations, policy makers, members of existing networks, and experts to understand the level of interest, possible research questions, and possible policy questions, and possible structure of such a network.
  • Literature review of learnings from networks to understand what has and what has not worked and what is essential to making a network successful. 

Questions we are trying to


  • How do we ensure that a network does not turn into only a funding mechanism? 
  • How do we ensure that the network evolves as well as organizations within the network evolve and continuously interact either through sharing research or taking on the position of mentor in areas of competence?   
  • How do we bring together the many vectors of big data? What are the different ways of configuring this network? 
  • How do we move national level work around big data to the international level?
  • How do we leverage existing work on Big Data? 
  • Should the network be global or global south?
  • How can the global south leverage the experience and research in the global north and bridge the gap in the dialogue between the global north and global south?
  • Can this network disrupt traditional research models?
  • How to have a sustained relationship with funders within the network and strategize the evolution of the work?

Learnings from initial conversations

  • The network must be organic and not top down, peer to peer, formal, with funding to support research but not limited in membership. 
  • Exclusively a global south network risks exclusion and might not allow for sharing of knowledge between experts working in contexts where big data is more 'developed' 
  • Organizations would join such a network to learn how to research big data - a nacsent topic in many contexts, leverage their work to the international level (particularly at the UN), learn about Big Data in other contexts, and develop relationships with other researchers pursuing similar agendas 
  •  Many organizations would wish to pursue academic and policy research 
  • Topics of research could include: privacy, open data, impact of ICT companies using big data on global south countries, cyber security, smart cities, identity schemes, government and national level databases
  • Outputs could include: a compiled report with case studies from various contexts, national and international policy initiatives, sharing of research/knowledge



Identifying and mapping the key stakeholders and their goals for using Big Data is essential in identifying the "nodes" of a network and how each node can contribute to the network. 

  • Government and policy makers
  • Public-Private partnerships
  • Private Companies

  • Academia and Research Centres 

  • Civil Society


A network should be able to account for the dynamic nature of big data and its applicability to almost any sector


  • Development

  • Emergency response

  • Data Advocacy and Social Change 

  • Transparency and accountability

  • Urban planning

  • Government delivery of services and functions

  • Policy formation

  • Financial Inclusion:

  • Monitoring environmental indicators:

  • Agriculture

  • Health care

  • Participatory citizenship

  • Education

  • Smart cities

  • Location based advertising

  • Defense development and cyber security 


  • Existing systems may not be able to shift into Big Data.
  • Accurate analysis and inference from the data

  • Ethical use of the data

  • User control of the data

  • Effective use of the data – know how and capacity of the people using it and the regulator

  • Empowerment vs. Marginalization as a result of big data practices

  • Breach and privacy concerns

  • Implementation of big data driven projects

  • Data ownership

  • Liability

  • Completeness of data

  • Standardization of data

  • Technology cannot overcome some challenges 

  • Political barriers

  • Impact on human rights and civil liberties  

Policy Windows?

Big Data can be applied to almost any vector. Based on literature review and conversations potential policy windows that have a direct impact on human rights and civil liberties that a network could focus on include: 

  • Access
  • Open Data and Openness
  • Transparency and Accountability

  • Privacy and Dignity

  • Data protection

  • Governance and Regulation

  • Development

  • Urban development and smart cities

  •  Data ownership

Literature Review 

Evolution of the Network

Robert Chambers, in his book, Whose Reality Counts? Identifies four fundamental elements needed by a network in order to inculcate an environment of trust, encouragement and the overall actualization of its purpose;

  • Diversity: the encouragement of a multitude of narratives from diverse sources,

  • Dynamism: the ability of participants to retain their individual identities while maintaining a facilitative structure.

  • Democracy: an equitable system of decision making to enable an efficient working of the net and finally

  • Decentralization: the feasibility of enjoying local specifics on a global platform.

  • Methods of attaining these elements include; ensuring a clear broad consensus, minimizing centralization, building trust between participants, joint activities, and consultations on the goals of the network, the sources of funding and an agreed upon structure within which the network would operate.



The structural informality of a network is essential to its sustenance. Networks must therefore ensure that they embody a non-hierarchized structure.

  • One form of a network structure is the threads, knots and Nets model.

    • The threads are established through common ideas and a voluntary participation in the process of communication and conflict resolution.

    • The knots represent the combined activities which the participants engage in, with the common goal of realizing a singular purpose.

    • The net represents the entire structure of the network, which is constructed through a confluence of relationships and common activities.

  • The maintenance of such a structure requires awareness of weak “threads” and the capability to knot them together with new participants, thereby extending the net.

  • Clearly defined milestones are integral to sustaining an effective support mechanism for donors and ensuring that all relevant participants are on board.



  • The initial seed money a network receives can be obtained from a single source however, cross sectorial financing is necessary to build a consensus with regards to issues that may be a part of the network’s mandate (this is less fundamental for networks whose primary mandate is implementation).

  • A network can also be funded through the objective it seeks to achieve through the course of its activities.

  • Lack of tangible outcomes exposes funders to financial risks. The best way to reduce such risks is to institute an uncompromising time limit for the initiative, within which it must achieve tangible results or solutions that can be implemented. A less stringent approach would be to incorporate a system of periodic review and assessment.




  • A study by Newell & Swan determined that there currently exist three types of trust between participants within a network:

    • Companion trust: the trust that exists within the goodwill and friendship between participants

    • Competence trust: wherein the competence of other participants to carry out the tasks assigned to them is agreed upon.

    • Commitment trust: the trust which is predicated on contractual or inter-institutional agreements.

  • Autonomy of participants within a network is considered to be close to sacred, so as to allow them to engage with each other on an equitable footing, while still maintain their individual identities.

  • The lower the level of centralized control within a network, the greater the requirement of trust.


Communication and Collaboration 


  • Research has shown that face to face interaction at regular intervals is better for building trust amongst participants, than email.

  • Need to develop a relationship vocabulary, which would be of particular use within transnational networks and afford a deeper understanding of cross cultural relationships.



Participation envisages a three levelled definition;

  • Participation as a contribution, where people offer a tangible input.

  • Participation as an organization process, where people organize themselves to influence certain pre-existing processes.

  • Participation as a form of empowerment, where people seek to gain power and authority from participating.

  • In order to evaluate and monitor participation, a network would have to attempt to incorporate a few fundamental processes, such as;

    • Establishing criteria of monitoring the levels of participation of the members.Creating an explicit checklist of qualifications of this participation., Building a capacity for facilitative and shared leadership., Tracing the changes that occur when the advocacy and lobbying activities of individuals are linked and using these individuals as participants who have the power to influence policy and development at various levels. , Recognizing that utilizing the combined faculties of the network would aid in the effectuation of further change is vital to sustaining an active participation in the network.

  • Networks should not be interpreted as being merely a resource centre.

  • One method of moving away from the needs based model of participation is to create a tripartite functionary; this involves A Contributions Assessment, A Weaver’s Triangle for Networks and An identification of channels of participation.

  • The activities of the network which don’t directly pass through the coordinator of the network can be monitored by keeping close contact with new entrants to the network and capturing the essence of the activities.


Leadership and Coordination 

​Sarason and Lorentz postulate four distinguishing characteristics required by individuals leading and coordinating networks:

  • Knowledge of the territory or a broad understanding of the type of members, the resources available and the needs of the members.

  • Ability to assess openings, making connections and innovating solutions would enable an efficient leadership that would contribute to the overall dynamism of the network.

  • Perceptive of strengths and building on assets of existing resources to allow the network to capitalize on its strengths.

  • Resource to all members of the network.

  • Practically, a beneficial leadership would also require an inventive approach by providing fresh and interesting solutions to immediate problems



The participation of diverse actors is reflective of the policy making processing having given due regard to on the ground realities and being sensitive towards the concerns of differently placed interest groups.

  • A network across the Global South should extend its ambit of membership to grass root organizations, which might not otherwise have the resources or the opportunity to be a part of a network.

  • The accountability of the network to civil society is dependent on the nature of the links it maintains with the public. Inclusion thus fosters a sense of legitimacy and accountability.

  • The inclusion of local institutions from the beginning would also increase the chances of the solutions provided by the network, being effectively implemented.



The process of evaluation of a network is most efficiently effectuated through a checklist that has been formulated within a research study for the purpose of evaluating its own network.



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  • Formal Knowledge Networks: A study of Canadian Experiences
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Thank you!

Exploring options for a Big Data Network - Draft

By Centre for Internet and Society

Exploring options for a Big Data Network - Draft

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