Development


An unexpectedly detailed description of our big data session was included in the Day 3 highlights: Big data is usually in the headlines for the wrong reasons – surveillance, exploitation of personal data for commercial or governmental ends, intrusion of privacy – but can also serve a valid and immensely exciting social purpose for development. Kicking off a fascinating, packed and highly-interactive session, moderator Rohan Samarajiva, Founding Chair and CEO, LIRNEasia, set out this contradiction in perception of big data as a “competition of imaginations” between hype and pessimism, reminding us that big data is “of interest to all of us, as we are the creators of this data, the originators of this data”. Our mobile telephones, and by extension we ourselves, are permanently in communication with the nearest towers, sending out details of our whereabouts and activities in an ever-growing, highly personal call record. This session aimed to “talk not about the imagination, but about what has been done”, exploring current and future trends in the use of big data for development.
Much of what is discussed as “big data” does not include the poor, because smartphone penetration is still low, social media are not used by all classes and datafied records are rare in developing countries. Therefore, the session focused on research that has been/is being done on pseudonymized mobile network big data in developing countries. Instead the usual “battle of imaginations” which posits the optimistic scenarios that tend toward hype against the pessimistic scenarios that imagine all sorts of bad things that could happen, we began with reality. What had been actually done on the ground in countries as different as Namibia, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka were presented by data scientists who knew the ins and outs of data cleaning, pseudonymization, and what software needs to be used to analyze petabytes of data at a time. The active audience raised a range of questions.
As I move from several productive conversations about big data for development in London to Doha where we will be exploring the potential of mobile network big data in the context of three presentations on research insights that have been drawn from big data, the question that preoccupies me is whether we can afford to let these data go waste, or be only used for narrow commercial ends. In economies with high consumer spending power there will be enough incentive to extract value from the data. But in our countries, where the dominant business model does not leave a lot of room for R&D, will we be left to mercy of off-the-shelf data analytics packages, if any?
Following the plenary in 2013 at which Viktor Mayer-Schonberger introduced big data to ITU Telecom World attendees, there will be a panel discussion at the 2014 edition in Doha, Qatar. What is novel is that we will have three presentations by those who have actually got their hands dirty with big data, including Linus Bengtsson on Flowminder who will talk about their most recent work in helping track Ebola in West Africa, and our own Sriganesh Lokanathan and Joshua Blumenstock. Big Data for Development Tuesday, December 09, 2014, 11:00 AM – 12:30 PM, Meeting Room 104 Companies are increasingly relying on business analytics to extract value from the large volumes of computer-readable and analyzable (or “datafied”) data in their possession. For example, telecom operators are using these techniques to identify customers likely to exit so as to manage churn. Big data for development (BD4D) seeks to apply these techniques to big data held by both government and private entities to answer development-related questions.
Two weeks back I was invited to give a guest lecture by the Department of Management Studies at IIT Delhi. The topic of my lecture was based on our ongoing work in using mobile network big data for development in Sri Lanka. Attended by 60+ graduate students and faculty from various departments (Management, Economics and Computer Science), the lecture garnered a large amount of interest from people trying to understand how big data can be used in various domains (both public and private). Whilst the focus of my talk was very much on development, there are still many implications and cross-over learnings for businesses and this came out more in the discussion following the lecture. The issue for many though (and which will remain for sometime) is getting access to big data rather than the tools.
In a recent in-house piece I did on LIRNEasia’s work on inclusive innovation with emphasis on agriculture, I concluded that inclusive development occurs when “the necessary condition of high, sustained growth above 7 percent year-on-year and the sufficient condition of a majority of the country’s work force being engaged in high-growth sectors are satisfied.” Innovations that contribute to inclusive development qualified as inclusive. In most developing countries, a high proportion of the work force is engaged in agriculture. Therefore, one cannot envisage inclusive development occurring without agriculture being transformed from a laggard sector to a leading growth sector. In this context, Bill Gates’s thinking on innovation is highly relevant to any discussion of inclusive innovation: We can help poor farmers sustainably increase their productivity so they can feed themselves and their families.
First, you must read Steve Song’s self-described rant. He is a thought leader. Will do anyone good to read his thoughts. What follows is my response: This could be the beginning of a good brawl, so let me first thank Steve for starting the debate right, with some facts wrong and slightly in rant territory. Without these elements one would not get a lively debate.
We work with data, so we see the evidence: more people have phones, more houses have permanent roofs, more homes have refrigerators, and so on. Yet, the everyday conversations harp on the failures. We too talk about them, because we must, but we do so in the form of “what could have been better” rather than failure. Charles Kenny, an economist whose work we have been following for some time, has written a new book called Getting Better, dealing with this problem. Here is an excerpt from the review: Among the seven major regions into which the World Bank divides the planet, life expectancy has grown more since 1980 in the Middle East and North Africa than anywhere else (12.
Bangladesh exported 50 percent less manpower in 2009. Thousands of jobless workers also returned home as their employers went broke after the Wall Street collapsed. Yet inward remittance grew by 20 percent ($10.72 billion) in 2009. How could fewer workers send the highest-ever remittance?
December 25 was just another working day at OnTime Technologies at Mahavilachchiya and things were going on at full throttle when I stepped-in to this rural BPO, arguably the first such initiative in Sri Lanka. Here is the good and bad news. Good news: The wheels are still in motion. Unlike most of the ICT4D projects (especially telecenters) that survive on donors’ oxygen, now it is self sustainable and taken seriously by the employees and villagers, who initially thought it would soon end. Employee turnover is low and what they do is seen as a career, rather than a pause till a better opportunity.