The city of Johannesburg was established in 1886 after the discovery of gold. Gold is a mineral that has been deemed valuable for thousands of years. It does not rust and it is malleable.
Gold has been used in jewelry as well as in the semiconductor industry to build electronic circuits. You can bury gold for hundreds of years and the worst it can get is accumulate dust.
Because of its durability, gold has been used to store value in the form of money. In many countries, printed and minted money used to be linked to stored gold, which was reserved in the central bank. This way, central banks used to print as much money as they had gold reserves. There had been many attempts to move away from the gold standard beginning in the United Kingdom in the 1920s.
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However, the first successful move from the gold standard was in the 1970s during the Nixon Administration in America.
At this time, the United States (US) ran out of gold and moved from the gold standard and floated the US dollar. Floated currency is regulated by the laws of demand and supply and is closely linked to the economic productivity of a country.
The idea of gold as the most important economic asset has passed. Instead of entrepreneurs going to California to look for gold, as they did in the past, they now go to Silicon Valley to create companies that exploit the acquisition and sharing of data.
Facebook is one such company that has connected the world and expanded our friendships – although, in my opinion, it lowered the quality of those friendships.
Facebook’s most valuable asset is not the software that connects people, which can easily be replicated, but the data of the over two billion active users it connects.
The most valuable asset of Uber, the ride-hailing service that does not own a single taxi, is the data of the people who use it. The prime asset of Google, the largest library, which owns no physical library, is the index that takes customers to their desired websites.
Therefore, the new valuable asset is not gold but it is data. Data has become the new gold! With a population of 1.3 billion people and a total purchasing power parity gross domestic product (GDP) of $6.74 trillion, the population of Africa is growing at the rate of 2.6%.
Much of Africa’s demographic is youthful. Much of this population is increasingly connected to the internet.
In 2017, Facebook had 170 million subscribers, which constitutes approximately 15% of the total population of Africa and this subscription is growing. Companies such as Google reportedly give accounts in exchange of subscriber data. These companies have been reported to have sold this data to entities such as advertisers, political parties etc. The exchange of personal data for an account is unfair trade because the value of personal data is far greater than the value of an account.
What do we do to commercialize the vast African database?
Firstly, we need to develop technological capacity to gather, process and monetize the African database. To achieve these, we ought to improve and expand our educational institutions, paying attention to the development of programs in data science. We need to embed data science subjects such as data analytics and software engineering into primary, secondary and tertiary education.
Governments and the African Union ought to expand projects such as the Deep Learning Indaba as well as the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences that are developing mathematics, machine learning and artificial intelligence expertise in Africa.
To gather data, we need to politically organize ourselves to create economies of scale. Regionally, organizations such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) should create regional data banks that collect, protect and store regional data.
Continentally, the African Union should coordinate data gathering and develop data protection policies. We need to create laws and policies that regulate data nationally, regionally and continentally.
– Tshilidzi Marwala is a professor and Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He deputizes President Cyril Ramaphosa on the South African Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.