Rohan Samarajiva


Supply-side data are relatively easy to come by in the ICT space. But just because they are there, they need not be taken as the truth. We need to apply our critical facilities to the data that we use from whatever source. The “smell test” is an important tool for a good researcher. This was the message I communicated to a group of young scholars at CPRsouth 2017 in Yangon.
For the CPRsouth Young Scholar Program, I was given a series of topics such as agriculture, big data and platforms and asked to identify policy-relevant research questions. This kind of response can never be complete. And it begs the question of how good my prediction abilities are. But here goes. The slides:
Yesterday, I presented at CPRsouth 2017 a policy brief on the disbursement efficacy of universal service funds. We presented two relatively easy to develop metrics (year-on-year disbursement rate and cumulative disbursement rate) and applied them to four countries, India, Malaysia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The conclusion was that irrespective of country and irrespective of political and administrative leadership, the funds failed to get the money out. In India, for example, USD 10 billion had accumulated in the fund by 2016 taken out of a highly competitive sector and making no contribution to connecting the unconnected. We pointed out that any tax or levy imposed on an operator that is a regular payment is passed on to customers and serves to depress demand.
Tomorrow, we start the CPRsouth Young Scholar Program at the Inya Lake Hotel, Yangon. I was asked to begin the program with a new topic, “What is policy research? What is special about communication policy research?” That proved more interesting than I thought. The slides are below.
Social media, especially Twitter, is not optimal for nuanced discussion of policy options. In the context of a talk I gave at the 2017 Sri Lanka Economic Summit on innovation, broadly defined, someone suggested co-working spaces as the priority. My response was: Tech and innovation cannot be reduced to ICT innovation — Rohan Samarajiva (@samarajiva) July 26, 2017 For reasons unclear to me this is being interpreted as an outright rejection of co-working spaces 2/ when I raised this once on Twitter Dr. @samarajiva outright rejected saying, Tech co-working spaces is not a priority! — Sesiri Pathirane (@Sesiri) August 26, 2017 So I thought it would be good to look at what I had actually said at the Sri Lanka Economic Summit.
In the little regulatory teaching I do, I have now shifted from deriving regulatory priorities from conventional industrial organization and administrative law principles to business models now prevalent in our countries. The below quotation from Business Insider shows ignorance of business models is not a problem limited to developing countries: Buried in pages of amendments to the European Union’s latest privacy proposal, the ePrivacy Regulation, members of the European Parliament recently recommended language that would strip European publishers of the right to monetize their content through advertising, eviscerating the basic business model that has supported journalism for more than 200 years. The new directive would require publishers to grant everyone access to their digital sites, even to users who block their ads, effectively creating a shoplifting entitlement for consumers of news, social media, email services, or entertainment. The language may seem confusing to the uninitiated. “No user shall be denied access to any [online service] or functionality,” the proposed amendment says, “regardless of whether this service is remunerated or not, on grounds that he or she has not given his or her consent […] to the processing of personal information and/or the use of storage capabilities of his or her […]

Human capital

Posted by on August 12, 2017  /  0 Comments

LIRNEasia has a human capital research focus. In this context, the Economist’s succinct exposition of the ideas of Gary Becker is worth reading: Simply put, human capital refers to the abilities and qualities of people that make them productive. Knowledge is the most important of these, but other factors, from a sense of punctuality to the state of someone’s health, also matter. Investment in human capital thus mainly refers to education but it also includes other things—the inculcation of values by parents, say, or a healthy diet. Just as investing in physical capital—whether building a new factory or upgrading computers—can pay off for a company, so investments in human capital also pay off for people.
In the course of a peer review, I wrote the following: Most people will connect to the Internet wirelessly. Some will be wireless for a few meters (WiFi), others for a few kilometers. All will use fiber for some parts of the connection, some in the form of FTTP, others in the form of backhaul capacity. In many cases, fixed 4G (wireless) is a direct substitute for wired connections. Our research shows that most people in lower-middle-income countries connect to the Internet using smartphones and tablets over mobile networks.
Myanmar’s ICT sector has been transformed over the past few years as a result of policy reforms that learned from the experience of countries in similar circumstances. Now scholars from abroad are interested in learning from Myanmar’s successes and in contributing to evidence-based solutions for the remaining challenges. In late August, around 70 scholars from 20 countries across Asia and Africa, including four former telecom regulators, will converge at Inya Lake Hotel for the 2017 Communication Policy Research south Conference. The theme of the conference is “Connecting the next billion.” In the inaugural session (1330-1500 hrs, 30 August 2017), the delegates will hear of the Myanmar experience from the Deputy Minister of Transport and Communication, U Kyaw Myo.

AI in governance

Posted by on August 7, 2017  /  2 Comments

Our colleague Nalaka Gunawardene has written a Facebook post where he asks “Robots in politics? Why not?” This provides a gateway for a substantive discussion on the role of technology in governance. First, we have to rephrase the question. I understand politics to be the art of contributing in various ways to governance.
Because of the TRAI decision outlawing zero rating, various workarounds were developed. With Mozilla funding, LIRNEasia conducted research on how they were being used in the New Delhi area. Yesterday’s Indian Express carried a story:  
The warning towers erected after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami are said to be dysfunctional, according to Reuters: Thailand’s warning system includes warning towers, a network of detection buoys in the sea and public announcement systems. “Around 70 to 80 percent, or around 2,000 pieces, need to be taken care of. We set up this system since 2006 so it needs to be maintained,” Kobchai Boonyaorana, deputy director-general of the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Department, told Reuters, referring to various equipment. “Batteries need to be changed,” he added, “I’ve ordered that this needs to be done urgently particularly in the southern region which is a tourist region. There might be some places where the equipment is damaged but not many places.
We know workarounds. We’ve researched them, we’ve written about them. But this is in a class of its own: With no real money, and working in a dictatorship’s gray zone, the gamers have cobbled together a faster network with more services than anything this socialist worker’s paradise has managed to produce. I sit in mute admiration as Ian shows me clones of billion-dollar US internet entities. All of it existing in near-­isolation from the outside world, just a hundred miles from the US.
Many see the promotion of innovation simply in terms of increasing reported R&D expenditures. I disagree. That is why I like the Global Innovation Index which is a composite index that looks not only at inputs, but also at outputs and innovation efficiency. Sadly, Sri Lanka is failing according to the GII. When compared with lower-middle-income countries, Sri Lanka is not in the top ten in anything.
“We are very poor. We have lost touch with the world. We need the World Bank to catch up.” This is a quotation from Julian Gewirtz’s book, Unlikely Partners, that I will be using in my keynote address at the University of Peradeniya Humanities and Social Sciences Conference on 28 July 2017. It was in a conversation between Deng Xiaoping and Robert McNamara.
Governments should not be flying blind. Now the tools of big data are available to reduce their ignorance. But we will not be able to use big data effectively if the narrative is dominated by utopian hype and dystopian scare mongering. For that we need effective, fit-for-purpose public public policy and regulation for big data (including algorithms), not remnants of 1970s thinking such as informed consent and strict purpose specification. For example, the above shibboleths do not provide any remedy for the real harms of lack of security of data storage.