Kathy Gibson is at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town – With Africa seeking to embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), data in all its forms is going to become a critical resource.

A panel of data experts came together this morning to discuss whether data is becoming the “new oil” for Africa’s development.

“I would go further and say data is the new oxygen,” says Murat Sonmez, MD and head: centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Global Network at the World Economic Forum.

“With the application of artificial intelligence (AI), even without data, we have been able to demonstrate the solution to many problems.”

Sylvia Makario, head: geospatial technologies are Hepta Analytics, explains how her company has worked in Rwanda to analyse crops, and determine when and where to plant.

“We are tackling the issue of climate change, and using data to make better decisions at the right time.”

Solutions cannot use just fata, however, says Sonmez. Data, people and things all need to come together to create integrated systems.

Africa stands to gain from the use of data, but needs to learn lessons from the rest of the world, says Alex Liu, managing partner and chairman of AT Kearney.

“The applications of taking data and applying it in the African context is very important. The issue outside of leapfrogging potential is the peril of falling behind.

“With data, you have create it, collect it and protect it.

“It’s not just about the best applications, but also having a sensible data framework: who owns it, who prices it, where is it stored and secured?

“There is a lot of optimism, but there is a lot that needs to change as well.”

Liu stresses that data is a weapon: “If you don’t think you own the data, someone else does. If you are not collecting and protecting it, someone else is.”

Data is borderless, Liu adds. Of the 54 countries in Africa, only 24 have any form of data legislation. The others have either draft legislation, no legislation or no data.

“We need to get together to enable the cross-border vision.”

Sonmez agrees with this caution. “There is a risk that companies that have data and don’t harness it; or that don’t have data will be left behind.

“We may see some countries leap forward, and others fall permanently behind.”

He adds that data needs to be a national strategy. “If can’t be left to individual companies: it is too big.”

In terms of who owns the data, and makes money out of it – the big tech companies have market capitalisations larger than many African countries.

Sonmez advocates a central marketplace where people could retain control of their own data through a tag or token, but contribute or trade it depending on what it is being used for.

Makario points out that there are a lot of legacy technologies in Africa that don’t allow people to analyse data. “We advise people who want to get into the space to start with the infrastructure that will allow you to acquire the data you need to analyse.”

The fact that DataProphet processes all of its data offshore speaks volumes about the available infrastructure in Africa.

“Gradually that is beginning to change,” says Frans Cronje, co-founder and CEO of DataProphet. “But even now, the new data centres are focused in South Africa and not in the broader African context.

“This means we are at higher risk because we have to move our data offshore to process it.”

To become a market leader in the data space, we need to work on creating the infrastructure that can create and process data, Cronje says.

“Once you have created those pipes, then you can create the demand for refineries”

The ethical use of data is a massive elephant in the room: currently anyone can collect, analyse and use any data they can get their hands on.

Cronje thinks that the people writing the algorithms should subscribe to something like the Hippocratic Oath, to recognise the importance and influence of their work.

“I’d like to see something that reminds the data practitioner or data scientist about the implications of working with data.”

Liu believes there should be some kind of forward protection as well. “One suggestions is to adopt a common framework for data security.”

Digital colonisation is a real danger, he adds. “There are very powerful entities with information and data scientists who are thinking about how to gain markets.

“We need to be aware and alert to the threats.”

Sonmez agrees that the threat is real, and not limited to Africa. “It is a global challenge. if we don’t act now, it could be too late.”

Government policies will play a key role in this, he adds. “Individual companies on their own cannot do much.”