Enhancing the resilience of citizens in smart digital futures

“It’s all about trying to operationalise the ‘Leave No One Behind’ principle.”

Mamello Thinyane

There is one thing Mamello Thinyane cannot work without: “passion”. A computer scientist driven by social justice, he needs to know that the work he is doing is going to “improve someone’s life”. “It makes me sleep better at night.”

His eagerness to see “a very immediate applied, practical impact of his work” can be seen in two main research projects he led while working as a Principal Research Fellow at UNU Macau. He says they were both about finding out “how you strengthen, how you empower the typically marginalised stakeholders”.


Smart Citizen Cyber Resilience


One of those projects was the Smart Citizen Cyber Resilience research project, which undertook research and developed tools to enhance the resilience of citizens and civil society stakeholders against adverse cyber incidents.

The name, he tells us, was inspired in the notion of “smart city”, which is often more linked to the idea of technologies or digital infrastructures being put in place to provide better, more automated, urban services, and less to the need of having citizens equipped with the right knowledge and tools to navigate that digital future we are creating. So, the UNU Macau project also involved the component of capacity building of CSOs, while recognising civil society stakeholders as significant actors in the co-production of national and global cyber resilience.

But what does cyber resilience mean?

Mamello Thinyane explains that, as we have been adopting digital technologies more and more, be it at the personal level, the organisational level or country level, there has also been an increase in risks associated with that use of digital technologies – “broadly, cybersecurity risks”, but this term, he notes, includes technical risks, such as ransomware or data breaches, as well as socio-technical risks, such as cyberbullying, threats to child safety online or issues related to surveillance.

For him, though, the biggest overall risk nowadays in cybersecurity is the fact that “we tend to look at it as being very siloed”, as we try to make sure each critical infrastructure owner is secure, like the bank or the government. The problem, he says, “is that risk can cascade across sectors” and so, we need to think on “how to strengthen the cyber security ecosystem, to make sure the whole ecosystem is strong”.

Cyber resilience, he says, is about “how we, as individuals, organisations, society, make sure that life continues, and business continues, despite these adverse cyber risks and cyberattacks”.

A key idea in this concept, he further explains, “is that it goes beyond trying to prevent the risks and threats and it goes into actually preparing yourself before the onset of the threat and making sure that: when the threat occurs, you can minimise the impact; and that after the threat has passed, you ensure recovery in your business processes, or in your lives, or in your organisations”. Moreover, he adds, it goes beyond bouncing back: “It is about how we make sure we adapt, how we become better as a result of that”.

From preliminary research, UNU Macau’s team – which also included Debora Christine, Christy Un and Vitoria dos Santos – found out that “you need to think of cyber resilience as a whole of society agenda or issue, because a society can only be as cyber resilient as its weakest links”. He gives an example: “If you have the private sector and the businesses doing very well in cybersecurity, but you have community organisations, CSOs, not strong enough, then you are not resilient enough as a whole society”.

Because cyber resilience “is a global challenge”, the team looked at approximately 14 states in the Asia Pacific region, to analyse to what extent were governments prioritising whole of society cyber resilience. This work resulted in the report  “Cyber Resilience in Asia Pacific – A review of national cybersecurity strategies ”, which has been well received, according to Mamello Thinyane.

“From literature and primary research”, the team saw “that CSOs continue to be more vulnerable compared to the private sector and to governments, when it comes to being cyber secure, cyber resilient”. And the situation in Macao was similar to what happens globally, he says.

So, they worked with CSO Caritas Macau to ensure that across their many different operations – “they have about 40 different service centres” – they could try to identify some of the risks they were exposed to, to understand what resources and technical competencies they had, so as to help them fill some of the gaps.

This work, he explains, involved “quite a lot of capacity building workshops with Caritas Macau”, targeting, in one group, managers within the organisation, for training on how to strategize around cyber resilience, and in another, targeting technical-related personnel, training them with “really practical hands-on skills” on everything from “how to do good data backups” to “how to do encryption of data and communications”. This work project also led to the “Civil Society Organizations’ Cyber Resilience ” report.


Data and Sustainable Development


Another research Mamello Thinyane was involved in at UNU Macau was the one related with the Data and Sustainable Development project, in which he worked with Debora Christine. This project was formerly known as the Small Data Lab, which had started when Prof. Michael Best was leading the Institute (2015-2018) – the former team included Michael Best, Fan Yang, Ignacio Marcovecchio, Karthik Bhat, Lauri Goldkind, Vikram Cannanure.

The Data and Sustainable Development research project, Mamello Thinyane says, addressed the same question of the Cyber resilience project – “how you empower the typically marginalised stakeholders” – by focusing on data ecosystems, critically investigating the sustainable development data assemblages, and developing artefacts to support the active participation of civil society stakeholders in those data ecosystems.

From the United Nations perspective, Mamello Thinyane explains, “we were looking mostly at monitoring the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)”, but the existing framing and articulation of the indicators tend to be “more framed at the government’s level, and the national level”. And though this work is critical – in terms of monitoring progress towards the achievement of the goals and in informing subsequent policy directions –, it may overlook realities at a subnational level that could perpetuate and even aggravate marginalisation, resulting in invisibility to policymakers, misrepresentation in the datasets, and discrimination.

“You may look at a country that has really high educational scores at the aggregate level, but if you go to some of its small communities you will find a completely different story”, he warns. And such stories are seldom heard.

In order to investigate the variations of marginalisation and exclusion throughout the course of data processes, Mamello Thinyane and Debora Christine developed “A framework for data marginalization and exclusion ”, which identified five dimensions of the phenomenon: the unknown voices – invisible in the mainstream societies, hence unknown to the data collecting entities; the silent voices – who, due to individual and personal factors, do not have the agency and the ability for vocalising; the muted voices – whose marginalisation and exclusion in the data processes is attributable to their social marginalisation; the unheard voices – who are excluded in the data sampling and data collection phase, due to factors such as digital disengagement, illiteracy, language exclusion, geographical factor, and economic exclusion; and the ignored voices – who are marginalised during the analysis of the collected data both through traditional statistical processes and new data approaches.

In the end, he says, it was all about “trying to operationalise” a key principle to the United Nations’ Global Agenda and the SDGs: the “Leave No One Behind” principle, which seeks to ensure that all people participate in and enjoy the benefits of sustainable development.

Besides the development of this framework, the project also involved working with Macau’s CSOs, namely Caritas Macau, once again. “That’s how I like to work, I like to build relationships with people that we continue to work with over time.” In this project, he explains, they built some systems for the CSO, “trying to help them improve their data”, especially data regarding homelessness.

UNU Macau ended up joining the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data , which is a global network using data to achieve the SDGs, namely “improving lives, fighting inequality, and promoting environmental sustainability”. The Institute joined their working group on “citizen-generated data”, and would later join another working group related to “inclusive data”.


Technology and Sustainable Development


Mamello Thinyane notes that a couple of decades ago, computer science or the Internet used to be something “completely separate from societal issues”. But the reality today, he says, is that there is a digital transformation going on and, “the same way the steam engine or electricity transformed economies and societies fundamentally, digital technology is doing the same to them in a very fundamental way”, it is transforming not only organisations and businesses, but also “transforming our lives, transforming us as individuals”. “Technology is changing us.”

So, because “it is so much of who we are”, it is “impossible to ignore the role of digital technology in allowing us or hampering us from achieving sustainable development”. But one of the problems is that “people that develop digital technologies sometimes are not aware” of this and decisions are made without thinking of the potential societal impacts on issues like relationships, health and wellbeing, humanity, for example.

“So, how do you make sure that with the technologies you develop, you are being aware of their impacts on sustainable development, are being responsible, are being accountable, as well? What are some of these positive and negative interactions between digital technology and development?”

And “it’s all going to get more critical”, he warns, giving the example of Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems – “How can we ensure they still remain ethical and respectful of the values of individuals?”. “This will remain an important area of study for a long time.”

After working for six years in UNU Macau, Mamello Thinyane is now based in Australia, where he is Optus Chair of Cybersecurity and Data Science, at the University of South Australia’s UniSA STEM . He is working with government, industry, and community stakeholders to strengthen collective cyber resilience. He is still collaborating with UNU Macau, currently working on the UN Women “Cyber Resilience among Women CSOs and Women Human Right Defenders in Southeast Asia” project.

He considers himself a citizen of the world.

While growing up in a small, rural village in Lesotho, Mamello Thinyane used to be amazed by looking at the sky and watching airplanes fly by. He wished to become a pilot one day – until he went on his first airplane travel and that “got demystified”. So, he just moved on “to the next exciting thing”.

But one passion did accompany him always, from childhood to now: explaining things to people. “I always enjoyed helping people walk through a concept or idea, helping people get through issues or understanding things better.” That, and making sure “that everyone thrives, everyone does well, particularly the marginalised and vulnerable”.