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Health Apps Respecting African's Data

The way ahead is health apps that respect Africans’ data.

Professor Sharifah Sekalala, Warwick Law School, Warwick

For most people, say the word ‘migration’ and they would think of the movement of people. We don’t think of data migration the same way - but maybe we should.

The lawyer in me was fascinated by the possible complexities of regulating not only health apps but also the movement of health data. I started to think that this could be an innovative way of thinking about migration which, instead of focusing on people, focused on health data. Annually, health data from over 40 million Africans is harvested by digital companies based in the global north, something which has been described as ‘digital colonialism.’

While we were doing field work in Uganda for a project on slum health we saw a lot of adverts and spoke to some participants who were using digital health apps. This reminded me of a 2018 article in the Economist that had declared that data was becoming more valuable that oil. We could clearly see the advantages that mobile health apps offer to their users, especially in health where infrastructure and resources were often limited, but it also leads to troubling questions: Where does the data go? Who has access to it? And who profits from African’s health data, particularly once it leaves Africa?

‘There is no app for this! Regulating the migration of health apps in Sub-Saharan Africa’

Following a ten-month pilot funded by the Wellcome Trust, we are now starting work on a project to map health apps in Kenya, Uganda and South Africa. Relying on a consortium of partners, we will use the framework of digital health colonialism to structure our analysis. We are going to work with app developers to trial designs under different regulatory conditions. And we will develop transnational legal guidelines for health data regulation.

Our aim is to provide a contextual analysis of this new manifestation of colonialism in global health and make a close interrogation of how the lack of clear regulatory procedures exacerbates the problems of data migration. And we will explore and evidence ways in which a bottom-up approach to regulation and app design could create African solutions to the problem of digital migration.

Our approach follows Warwick Law School’s strong tradition of doing law in context. It enables us to think about law not only as it is but what it ought to be. We have a long tradition of working on legal issues in the global south as well as in many diverse areas of law. Warwick Law School has several excellent scholars working on different aspects of digital regulation which creates an exciting research environment for this work. This is vital in helping us to develop regulations that will protect privacy and prevent exploitation of the personal information of those living in Sub Saharan Africa.


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