African Creativity is the Key to Getting Data (and Innovation) Right on the Continent

Kristophina Shilongo, Kaulyaalalwa Peter / Feb 13, 2024

Creativity is a necessary prerequisite for meaningful innovation. The creative process involves mapping out positive visions and novel approaches that eventually manifest in new products and services. Right now, as African nations work to regulate and capitalize on artificial intelligence (AI), it's essential that they don't overlook the creative process — especially one that centers on Africa.

When paired with valuable open data, African creativity presents an immense opportunity to advance socio-economic development with data-driven innovation. As researchers of data technologies who have a great appreciation for arts and culture, we’ve often asked ourselves: What would data policies look like in Africa if they were centered on creativity? We explored this question in our latest publication for the Internet Sectoral Overview (ISO).

While researching our paper, we came across an insightful paper by Nadezhda Purtova and Gijs van Maanen that validated our motivations for pursuing this topic at the intersection of creativity, the digital economy and open data governance. Purtova and van Maanen systematically and critically reviewed economics literature that defines data as an economic good. Their conclusion challenges the notion that the categorization of data as an ‘economic good’ aids in meeting broader data governance objectives, asserting that it instead primarily results in the increased production of data.

This observation may be true in the African context. We are concerned that current data policy frameworks and rules prioritize solutions for the production and/or availability of data, but may fall short in achieving other critical objectives such as driving innovation, protecting privacy and upholding other human rights within the digital ecosystem. Hence in our paper, we propose the design of data policies with an objective to harness African creativity within the digital economy.

Furthermore, we argue that while public policies may not directly influence creativity, they can play a role in fostering a socio-economic and regulatory environment supportive of creative, data-driven innovation if certain measures are put in place. We propose several measures, including ensuring equitable participation in the data economy, skills development and diversification, data collaborations, and adoption of precautionary approaches to innovation as possible steps in this direction.

Increased participation

There is no one defined path towards innovation and as such, we posit that data policies should aim to cultivate the conditions that expand the pool of ideas, increasing the likelihood of innovative outcomes.

The African Union Data Policy Framework references harnessing conventional subjects in Science, Technology, and Innovation (STI). These STI subjects offer a quantitative assessment of data and related issues but fall short in incorporating qualitative or interdisciplinary viewpoints. Africans trained in less popular disciplines– such as art or music, various forms of vocational training, and branches of the social sciences beyond anthropology, sociology, psychology, or economics – should be encouraged to see themselves as users of data. This form of structural exclusion is exacerbated among women and gender diverse persons. Making provisions for increased participation also contributes to a more comprehensive understanding of the societal influences and the individuals whose data is under analysis, or who are the intended recipients of a particular innovation.

We also pondered the number of ideas lost simply because they may seem unfeasible in a world dominated by the English language. Despite the fact that over a thousand languages are spoken on the African continent, data and the related tech discourse are skewed towards anglophone languages. At the grassroots level, organizations such as Masakhane and Makerere AI Lab are addressing these accessibility challenges. They are constructing high-quality text and speech datasets for low-resourced languages in East Africa. These datasets are intended to be open and can be used in several Natural Language Processing (NLP)-based applications such as spell checking and correction, and machine translation. More can be done at the public level.

Diversification of data capabilities

An important aspect of idea generation and creativity involves the freedom to experiment and engage in playful exploration, particularly with open data. However, current data practices often confine Africans to the roles of data collectors or merely data subjects, a situation that lacks equity and overlooks the diverse skills needed to move from idea conception to implementation. Collaborative efforts can be established to empower communities in both the design and collection of data. This can be achieved through digital policies that enhance data capabilities, enabling individuals to annotate data based on their needs and experiences.

Optimizing data sharing and collaborations

Drawing inspiration from our own Oshiwambo culture, we were reminded of the value placed on collaboration and collectivism. Like many other African cultures, Aawambo, the people of Namibia believe that collaborative efforts leverage diverse capacities, which can elevate creative abilities without compromising on egalitarian efforts. Policymakers can leverage these African values by supporting initiatives such as Mozilla’s Common Voice Project which enables data sharing and collaboration between different stakeholders including communities and shared interest groups. We do however stress that, in addition to the technical requirements such as interoperability, data sharing and collaborations also require trusting relationships and, where possible, investment incentives from governments.

Creating a regulatory environment for creative experimentation

As African policymakers embark on the journey towards innovation through the creative utilization of open data, it is imperative not to overlook the necessity of advancing a regulatory framework that not only promotes national security but also safeguards the human rights of data subjects and those affected by data-driven innovations. The creative ideas of a few should not create hostile conditions for the majority, particularly as governments designate open government data as public infrastructure. In this regard, policies should emphasize the need for careful consideration of the impact certain technologies can have on people, even in the absence of evidence of harm or violation of human rights. A precautionary approach to innovation helps avoid conflating the lack of evidence for harm with a genuine absence of harm. Regulatory sandboxes become handy tools to assess the impact of certain innovations.

Open data itself lacks intrinsic value. However, its potential to inform innovation increases significantly when a diverse set of skills and knowledge are exchanged among collaborators working together to safely develop a product that enhances utility in a specific area. We, therefore, conclude that a nuanced approach to open data which emphasizes the creativity of Africans, can effectively address the tensions between open data and other data governance objectives such as privacy, inclusion and equitable distribution of benefits.


Kristophina Shilongo
Kristophina is a researcher and feminist who is interested in the topics of participatory governance and a sustainable approach to the development and deployment of technology in Africa. She is currently a Senior Tech Policy Fellow at the Mozilla foundation where her project is critically looking at...
Kaulyaalalwa Peter
AI and Human-computer interaction (HCI) researcher, Kaulyaalalwa Peter is currently pursuing a master's degree in Computer Science with a specialization in Software Development at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. As a research consultant, her work revolves around participatory desig...