[CODATA-international] Digital Feudalism

Kobus Herbst Kobus.Herbst at ahri.org
Tue Oct 15 01:53:37 EDT 2019

Dear colleagues,

I have been following these discussions with interest. I agree with Kassim that much can be done at the project inception level to address these issues. Of relevance is this fair research initiative : http://rfi.cohred.org/


Kobus Herbst
Director : South African Population Research Infrastructure Network (SAPRIN)
Chief Information Officer : Africa Health Research Institute
Cell: +27-82-577-4964 Work: +27-31-203-4727

From: CODATA-international <codata-international-bounces at lists.codata.org> On Behalf Of Mwitondi, Kassim
Sent: Tuesday, 15 October 2019 01:21
To: Kevin McCluskey <mccluskeyk at ksu.edu>; Mwitondi, Kassim <K.Mwitondi at shu.ac.uk>; Falk Huettmann <fhuettmann at alaska.edu>; BOULTON Geoffrey <Geoff.Boulton at ed.ac.uk>
Cc: CODATA International <codata-international at lists.codata.org>
Subject: Re: [CODATA-international] Digital Feudalism

Thanks Kevin. Encountering experts that never were, trainees who can't cope with the rigour of the course, or conference delegates with hardly any understanding or interest in the themes are all commonplace. It all goes down to the "motive" behind the decision. I don't mean to digress, but those are typical examples of HOW things are done, which determines the outcomes.

In an earlier message, I emphasised the need for the recipients, funders and experts to have a common understanding of the underlying problem. To me, some of the points you (Kevin) raise constitute the elephant in the room, we don't want to see. It spells how domain knowledge tends to be detached from supporting expertise or vice versa. It is about lacking interdisciplinarity. We may continue to shout from roof tops, coining all sorts of new terminologies about the imbalance in accessing and sharing data. We may keep on blaming IPs, but I strongly believe that the main challenge stems from the way we design, implement and manage projects.

We cannot continue to parade with solutions looking for problems to solve. Instead, we must understand the challenges of the communities and jointly design, develop and implement solutions. Let us bear in mind that any project is data consumer and a data generator - that is, during and throughout the lifespan of any project data will be required and data will be generated. Who will have access to those data attributes and how, are questions that must have been raised and probably answered way ahead of launching the project.


Dr Kassim S. Mwitondi
Sheffield Hallam University
Faculty of Science, Technology and Arts
Communication & Computing Research Centre
9410 Cantor Building, City Campus
153 Arundel Street
Sheffield, S1 2NU
United Kingdom
Tel. +44-114-2256914 (Direct)
Tel. +44-114-2255555 (General)
From: Kevin McCluskey <mccluskeyk at ksu.edu<mailto:mccluskeyk at ksu.edu>>
Sent: 14 October 2019 16:08:32
To: Mwitondi, Kassim <K.Mwitondi at shu.ac.uk<mailto:K.Mwitondi at shu.ac.uk>>; Falk Huettmann <fhuettmann at alaska.edu<mailto:fhuettmann at alaska.edu>>; BOULTON Geoffrey <Geoff.Boulton at ed.ac.uk<mailto:Geoff.Boulton at ed.ac.uk>>
Cc: CODATA International <codata-international at lists.codata.org<mailto:codata-international at lists.codata.org>>
Subject: Re: [CODATA-international] Digital Feudalism

Meanwhile, conversations about making digital sequence information databases into a pay-as-you-go resource continue vis a vis the Nagoya Protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

While this may be a simplification, there is significant push back from "provider" parties who suggest that access to genetic data is not enough of a shared benefit and that some monetary benefit sharing should be established.  This is a significant impediment to open data sharing and creates pressure for private rather than public data resources.

The CBD held a fact finding study, and subsequently hosted an ad hoc technical expert group to discuss digital sequence information. https://www.cbd.int/abs/dsi-gr/2017-2018/default.shtml<https://www.cbd.int/abs/dsi-gr/2017-2018/default.shtml>

The output of this first "ahteg" was a weak, non conclusive document that spawned a repeat meeting which will be held next winter https://www.cbd.int/abs/dsi-gr/2019-2020/default.shtml<https://www.cbd.int/abs/dsi-gr/2019-2020/default.shtml>   Indeed, they could not even agree on what digital sequence information was with obstructive participants insisting that meta data was equivalent to sequence data.

Moreover, the first "ahteg" included participants who were not technical experts. One (representing Namibia and the African bloc) suggested that genome sequence databases were "like kiddie porn" and this was only challenged by a representative of a ngo- neither the CBD secretariat or the facilitator saw that this comment was neither technical or expert.  Another (representing the "third world network") exhorted the technical experts to "just be honest" which was again only challenged by the ngo representative. Other "technical experts" to the first ahteg included representatives of the international chamber of commerce, the WHO, and something called the ABS Capacity Development Initiative

Questions, such as how much data is generated from materials sourced in developing nations, who accesses these data sets, and whether the data is used for scientific publication (including co-authorship by scientists in developing nations), or in commercial products remain un-answered.   Maybe codata has experts who can look at these types of questions. Certainly genbank, entrez, gold, ddbj, riken, and the myriad of organism specific genome databases would be impacted by any pay-as-you-go or subscription model for access to genetic databases.

In this instance, open access to data is threatened by a desire to monitor utilization and tie it to benefit sharing. It has been my contention (not shared by everyone) that the solution to the digital sequence information problem lies in the data itself. If a party can show that a genetic trait is unique to their sovereign territory, then they should have unique exclusive rights to the utilization of that information. If, however, that specific genetic sequence is present in organisms from many parties (countries), then one party should not have exclusive rights to the utilization of that information. The key here is that the data on geographic distribution of the specific genetic sequence (or variant thereof) is the answer to the question of who has the right to control utilization of that information.

best regards,

Kevin McCluskey

Research Professor, Ret
Department of Plant Pathology
Kansas State University

From: CODATA-international <codata-international-bounces at lists.codata.org<mailto:codata-international-bounces at lists.codata.org>> on behalf of Mwitondi, Kassim <K.Mwitondi at shu.ac.uk<mailto:K.Mwitondi at shu.ac.uk>>
Sent: Saturday, October 12, 2019 2:14 PM
To: Falk Huettmann <fhuettmann at alaska.edu<mailto:fhuettmann at alaska.edu>>; BOULTON Geoffrey <Geoff.Boulton at ed.ac.uk<mailto:Geoff.Boulton at ed.ac.uk>>
Cc: CODATA International <codata-international at lists.codata.org<mailto:codata-international at lists.codata.org>>
Subject: Re: [CODATA-international] Digital Feudalism


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