Prof Maria Fasli on bringing the benefits of data to the developing world

14 Apr 2021

Image: Maria Fasli

UNESCO’s first chair in analytics and data science discusses how digital transformation can address the key challenges of invisibility and inequality.

Digital transformation has been heralded as the way of the future for many aspects of our lives. From data analytics to emerging tech, the appetite for creating a more digital-centric world has never been stronger.

But a lot of these conversations centre around the developed world. While data underpins many aspects of modern human life, there are challenges to overcome when unlocking the benefits of this data, particularly for the developing world.

This is something Prof Maria Fasli is trying to address. A computer scientist by trade, Fasli has a number of titles to her name. She is the executive dean of the Faculty of Science and Health at the University of Essex and the director of the ESRC Business and Local Government Data Research Centre.

In 2016, she also became the first UNESCO chair in analytics and data science – a role she recently secured for another four years.

‘Big corporations have a social responsibility and can make a difference by supporting training and education programmes’

It is in this role in particular that Fasli’s key focus has been to address the challenge of helping developing and transitioning countries to gain the data science and analytics skills they need for the 21st century.

“I am a firm believer that by improving people’s data literacy and capacity, along with access to and understanding of data and knowledge, we can empower citizens to positively contribute to the governance of their country and transforming economies of developing countries into strong, self-reliant digital and knowledge economies,” she told

“Digital technologies have the potential to transform developing countries and help address the key challenges of invisibility and inequality.

“By developing skills and research capacity in developing countries, improving not only access to data and information but also data literacy, you can start bridging the gap between knowledge-rich and knowledge-poor so that people at different levels can understand and work with data, monitor progress on goals and hold governments, institutions and organisations to account.”

The science and technology innovation gap between developed and developing countries will come as no surprise. One example to highlight this gap is the scarcity of publications in peer-reviewed journals from least developed countries (LDCs).

In 2013, the UN said that only seven scientific and technical journal articles were published for every 1m people in African LDCs. In comparison, in high-income OECD countries, about 1,100 scientific and technical journal articles were published for every 1m people.

Additionally, access to financing is a major constraint of R&D, technology and innovation, especially in LDCs. A 2018 UN report focused on technology and innovation said that “traditional financing solutions have proved poorly suited” to meeting the needs of innovation, particularly in the earliest stages of technology development and innovation in developing countries.

The report also found the geographical distribution of STEM graduates to be very unequal, with two-thirds of them being in Asia – mainly India and China – and only 5.2pc in Latin America and less than 1pc in Africa

Fasli believes embedding skills and knowledge that can directly contribute to innovation is vital in the development of a sustainable digital economy.

“What is needed is education and training at different levels and I believe we need to be bold when we are thinking of this challenge. This is not just about supporting the training of highly-skilled graduates and upskilling professionals and policy makers to understand and work with data, but supporting data literacy at all levels of education,” she said.

“This needs both government but also private sector support. Big corporations have a social responsibility and can make a difference by supporting training and education programmes in-country.”

In the first four years in her UNESCO role, Fasli has formed strong partnerships with collaborators from around the world and organised a range of events from workshops and conferences, to training events and mentoring sessions for students.

She said seeing the thirst for knowledge and education across the world has been amazing. “With the experiences that we have had in the first four years and lessons learnt, we now hope that we will be able to accelerate progress and be able to reach out to more countries and partners and increase the volume of training and other activities.”

While the collection and use of data to inform decision-making and policy is commonplace in the developed world, there is a huge difference in the availability, access and capacity to use data in developing countries. Fasli said this is where one of the key challenges remains.

The stereotype of the ‘geek’ white male

Outside of the challenges with bringing data skills to developing countries, Fasli also said there is more work to be done globally when it comes to the gender divide within the industry.

“To some extent things have changed as we now see a lot more women in high-level positions in tech companies as well as other organisations in tech,” she said. “Unfortunately, the predominant image of someone working in this industry is white male.”

A 2018 European Commission study puts stark figures on this image, with only 24 out of every 1,000 women third-level graduates having studied an ICT-related subject, and three times more men working in the digital sector than women.

‘Perceptions take time to change, but the media and social media can play a role here by not reproducing these stereotypes’

“All of us in the industry, whether working in academia or companies, have a big role to play here to bring about a step change. We need to bring down the stereotype of the ‘geek’ white male as the typical person working in tech and this is the image that is projected in movies, TV series etc,” said Fasli.

“Firstly, we need to shout out more about how amazingly creative it is to be working in this broad discipline and tech space and how well-suited this area is to women’s abilities and creativity so that young people when considering career choices, and women in particular, are not just dismissing a career in tech based on stereotypes.

“Secondly, we need to demonstrate both the range of careers and the different career pathways that one could follow within an academic, company or public sector setting. Perceptions take time to change, but the media and social media can play a role here by not reproducing these stereotypes.”

The future of ethical data

Looking to the future of the data industry, Fasli said the responsibility of using data and AI algorithms more ethically will become more important than ever.

Last year, UNESCO launched a global consultation about how AI can be developed and deployed ethically. The EU has also been laying the groundwork for the future of AI regulations in recent years.

“Often machine learning algorithms operate as black boxes, and instead of just accepting the outcome of an algorithm, we need to be able to enquire as to how and why the specific outcome was derived and have more explainable and interpretable algorithms that can be interrogated,” said Fasli.

“The public will also need to be educated to understand the digital trail that they leave behind and how this may be used in decision making by organisations and may be affecting their everyday lives in far more profound ways than they currently understand.”

Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic