Rohan Samarajiva


We have been writing about network shutdowns for a long time. We even formulated a law to explain its workings. Now finally a court has ruled: The judgement reads as, “For what has been discussed above, the instant appeal and the connected petitions are allowed. Consequently, the actions, orders and directives issued by the Federal Government or the Authority, as the case may be, which are inconsistent with the provisions of section 54(3) are declared as illegal, ultra vires and without lawful authority and jurisdiction. The Federal Government or the Authority are, therefore, not vested with the power and jurisdiction to suspend or cause the suspension of mobile cellular services or operations on the ground of national security except as provided under section 54(3).

City as platform

Posted by on February 24, 2018  /  0 Comments

We’ve been writing about smart cities for a while. Many of the plans for the design of these complex organisms have fallen short of expectations. But now some are taking a new approach: Sidewalk thinks of smart cities as being rather like smartphones. It sees itself as a platform provider responsible for offering basic tools (from software that identifies available parking spots to location-based services monitoring the exact position of delivery robots), much as Google does with its smartphone operating system, Android. Details are still under discussion, but Sidewalk plans to let third parties access the data and technologies, just as developers can use Google’s and Apple’s software tools to craft apps.
This is not the first time Engel’s Law has been written about here. And unlikely the last time. The 2016 Household Income and Expenditure Survey report is out and we’ve started poking around for insights. Here is a sample: From a high of 60.9% of total household expenditures spent on food in 1990-91, the food ratio has declined to 34.

What is not bias?

Posted by on February 21, 2018  /  0 Comments

Bias is an important topic in general. It is of special significance to a research organization. Issues of bias being built into models that are beginning to play significant roles in society and economy are coming to the forefront of public discourse. So we decided to talk about this topic at a Journal Club. Colleagues from University of Moratuwa’s DataSearch also attended.
I was invited to speak at the launch of the UNDP-funded DataSmart initiative of the Ministry of Disaster Management, where some work is being done by Sarvodaya Fusion. I talked about the need not only to collect data, but also to ensure that it produced the right kind of information that could be translated by the beneficiaries into action that saved lives and protected assets and livelihoods. We need to think beyond generalized disaster warnings to provide people in particular locations with specific, actionable information that they could use, such as the river will crest in this particular location at x meters at this specific time. I went on to talk about the need to have more granular rainfall data that could be fed into models that could yield the kinds of actionable information people living in our river valleys could use. The attenuation of microwave transmissions caused by rainfall is built into the operation of the ubiquitous mobile networks.
The Household Income and Expenditure Survey is an important report. The 2016 report is just out. The previous report (2012-13) found that 12.5 percent of Sri Lankan households lacked telephone service, fixed or mobile. By 2016, the phoneless households had declined to 8.
I just heard of Maev Sullivan’s demise. It’s always sad to hear of the passing of friends and those who engaged in the hard work of telecom reforms. She was with Mercury when the UK market was being opened up. She fought the battles to make interconnection possible. I still remember her formula: first they deny; then they delay; then they degrade.
Since 2015, we have been working on different aspects of electoral reforms. The first implementation of the Mixed Member Proportional System in Sri Lanka’s local government elections on 10th February 2018 was a research to policy achievement for us, though of course we did not get everything we wanted. And the work is not over as I say in an op-ed that will hopefully be published tomorrow: The government, the Elections Commission and citizens must treat this election as a trial run of MMP. The actual operation of MMP in Sri Lankan conditions must be analyzed and the required changes incorporated in the procedures for the Provincial and National elections that have to be held soon. One obvious change that the Elections Commission must implement is in the manner of reporting results.
The World Economic Forum recently published some broadband price comparisons that generated some social media conversation, mostly because Sri Lanka, which had the lowest broadband prices according to the ITU, was now the 17th cheapest. LIRNEasia Research Manager Shazna Zuhyle who is active in the ITU’s indicators committees had this to say: The WEF has employed a consulting consultancy firm to gather the data that was then analysed by cable.co.uk. They have simply captured all fixed residential broadband plans per country, averaged the monthly cost and converted to USD.
People are talking across borders more and more. But the minutes carried the old-fashioned way by telecom operators are on a downward trajectory. It won’t be long before conventional calling will go the way of the telegram. Telcos terminated 547 billion minutes of international traffic in 2013, and Skype plus carrier traffic totaled 761 billion minutes. If we assume that total international (carrier plus OTT) traffic has continued to grow at a relatively modest 13 percent annually since 2013, the combined volume of international traffic would have reached 1.
We had proposed standard comparative metrics for universal services because we said they would lead to improved performance and changes in programs. Some academic reviewers rejected our article on the ground that metrics could not improve performance. It’s difficult to educate ignorant peer reviewers because they are anonymous. But who knows, they may stumble upon this blog. The Centre’s quest to identify the top 100 cities for its smart city projects has states vying for maximum entries.
Many of the discussions at organizations such as ours that are driven by the need to influence policy through research, center on indicators. We need to be able to communicate quickly and effectively how things have changed for the better or for worse, ideally in comparison with benchmarks. The best way to do this is through an indicator. In academic settings, it is common to bemoan the incompleteness of various indicators, when those same academics are faced with the task of communicating their research to policy makers or the general public, they fall back on one or at most two indicators to tell their story. One thing I say about indicators is that they are all imperfect.
Here is what happened when someone in a probably tsunami impact zone received a warning from the authorities in British Columbia, Canada, a few days back: Meg Devlin, who lives near Victoria’s Gorge waterfront, said she was awakened by a message at 3:02 but didn’t recognize the phone number for Victoria’s Vic-Alert emergency notification service, so she ignored it. “I unplugged my phone and rolled over and went back to sleep,” Devlin told On the Island host Gregor Craigie. There is no way for anyone to recognize the “official” nature of a number sending a text in the middle of the night. The CBC News story goes on to talk a significant number of people in the probable impact zone who received the warning not through official channels, but through friends and people knocking on doors. Tanya Patterson, the City of Victoria’s emergency program coordinator, said the Vic-Alert system is one area for improvement in the city’s emergency response.
It has always puzzled me why we have to conduct expensive surveys to find out what mobile operators already know. Every CDR [Call Detail Record] captures the IMEI number of the handset. It’s nothing to report this and thereby support those who are developing apps. Here is one MNO giving the data: Huawei was the most popular mobile handset brand among Telenor customers, according to a report from Telenor Myanmar. The report shows 24 percent of Telenor Myanmar’s over 19 million subscribers used Huawei handsets in 2017.
Our work on online freelancing has provided us with an interesting lens to think about jobs of the future. The demand for the kinds of work that can be done online seem to be changing at a rapid pace, and not in an easy-to-predict manner. The threat of automation is ever present. In that context, our Human Capital Research Team Leader (who is also deeply engaged with school reform in Sri Lanka) has been getting us to think about what all this should/could mean for general education. Thomas Friedman’s column on technology had added resonance in this context: Each time work gets outsourced or tasks get handed off to a machine, “we must reach up and learn a new skill or in some ways expand our capabilities as humans in order to fully realize our collaborative potential,” McGowan said.
Every disaster and every false-warning incident is a learning opportunity. We have done these kinds of assessments after many disasters and false warnings sometimes at great length, as in the case of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and sometimes simply through a blog post. Our focus has been on naturally occurring hazards, but the recent false warning in Hawai’i was about an incoming ballistic missile. But since it was communicated over the Wireless Emergency Alert system or cell broadcasting, which we have been writing about since 2008 at least. The New York Times said: “The false alert was a stark reminder of what happens when the old realities of the nuclear age collide with the speed — and the potential for error — inherent in the internet age.