Human Rights in the Digital Age: The Promises of Big Data and Technology (Part I)

Editor’s note: This post forms part of a larger series addressing key issues related to human rights, technology and big data. 

The world is only just beginning to understand the impact and change that big data and associated technology are bringing to how we live and interact. Technology is becoming more powerful and multifunctional by the day. It is reducing or removing human input in areas such as intelligence gathering and decision-making processes. The amount and type of information that can be collected and stored, and the capacity to process large datasets to uncover patterns and correlations, are unprecedented. This paradigm shift in technological ability and capacity raises questions as to how we can best protect and promote human rights in the digital age.

The Human Rights, Big Data and Technology Project (‘HRBDT Project’) seeks to advance human rights in the era of big data. Funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council and the University of Essex, and based at the University’s Human Rights Centre, the Project’s goal is to map and analyse the challenges and opportunities presented by the use of big data and associated technology from a human rights perspective. It will consider whether fundamental human rights concepts and approaches need to be updated to adapt to the digital age, and/or whether a reconceptualisation of human rights is necessary to meet its new realities.

The Project will also propose regulatory and remedial responses, and develop good practice guidelines on human rights, big data and associated technology. The challenge in doing so is not only in the complexity of the issues involved, but also in aligning diverse stakeholders who may harbour different interests. Given the ubiquity and ceaseless advancement of technology, the HRBDT Project sees the need and potential for states, corporations, international organisations, civil society, and academia to work together to grapple with common issues that society faces today.

The first part of this blog will map out some of the opportunities of big data and associated technology, with the second part looking at the related challenges to follow next week.

The Promises of Big Data and Technology

The global rise of the Internet has increased connectivity and introduced a new space for social interaction. Technology, big data and the Internet of Things are revolutionising both our home lives and city planning, increasing ease and convenience, and promoting efficiency. But beyond practicalities and convenience, big data and technology provide opportunities for the protection and promotion of human rights. There are countless examples of ways in which big data and technology could have a positive impact on human rights.

For example, big data and technology can potentially be used to accelerate the practical delivery of health rights. Data from health apps and wearables can be combined with traditional health records to deduce patterns of change that might be scientifically significant. Prevention or more effective treatment can be facilitated by detecting and diagnosing health conditions at an early stage. By analysing medical records, trends in drug side effects or hospital readmissions can be detected. Public health service delivery and interventions can also be improved. E-health and m-health may complement health systems by improving access and increasing personalisation of care.

Big data can also potentially be used to measure the progressive realisation of health rights. By providing a source of statistical data, benchmarks for indicators of health can be measured. For example, real-time data has been used to monitor the implementation of a new programme aimed at preventing mother-to-child HIV transmission in Uganda. This data can be used to track the delivery of public health interventions. Such evidence of the extent to which states are upholding their obligations in relation to the right to health can be used to hold them accountable.

Advances in technology have also given rise to unprecedented levels of citizen journalism, manifested in eyewitness social media. This, in addition to big data on conflict and state repression, provides a new way to map, monitor, and document human rights violations. Accounts of human rights abuses may be analysed and corroborated by combining numerous data sources. Digital data presents new possibilities and requires new methods of navigation. By finding standardised methods for capturing, categorizing, comparing and verifying data, new data forms, such as user-generated content from social media, could also be used as evidence in courts and tribunals. This could contribute to achieving accountability of perpetrators.

Additionally, big data and technology have the potential to strengthen the response of humanitarian actors to conflict or natural disasters and better meet the protection needs of those affected by acute crises. As digital data offers the opportunity to track changes in human behaviour and provide real-time feedback, an unprecedented insight into emerging situations of vulnerability has become available. This enables practitioners and policy-makers to anticipate and develop potentially more effective responses. For example, social media coupled with satellite imagery could assist in establishing secure places of protection for displaced persons.

Technology could also improve planning and delivery of services to more effectively meet the ongoing needs of displaced populations, such as the provision of health, food, education, and legal services. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has used digital fingerprinting and Global Positioning System (‘GPS’) mapping of individuals to improve its humanitarian intervention in South Sudan. Acceleration in the development and adoption of big data innovation can thus have a positive impact on responses to potential global and local crises.

These are just some of the potential benefits in the digital age. The flagship initiative of the United Nations Secretary-General, the UN Global Pulse, drives the broad adoption of big data innovation across the United Nations, harnessing big data for the public good. It is the HRBDT Project’s aim to study if and how big data and associated technology can transform the realisation of human rights and humanitarian protection, making the operationalisation of human rights effective in practice.

However, it is not all positive. From a rights-based perspective, there are challenges that need to be addressed. Look out for part two of this blog next week for more on the perils of big data and technology.

Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author(s) alone.