Rohan Samarajiva


The search for a silver bullet ICT solution for low/volatile prices for agricultural produce continues, even when it should by now be evident that there is none. What matters is the level of supply and demand when the crop is ready to be harvested. We have great difficulty in foretelling the future. ICTs can, as the Economist points out, result in faster and wider dissemination of misleading or irrelevant information such as what is everyone growing at this particular time. What is relevant is the price that will be fetched when the crop is harvested, which is determined by supply and demand at that time.
The Social Science Section of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science organized a symposium to discuss the Sri Lanka Singapore Free Trade Agreement, signed in January 2018. Given it has been six months since this legal instrument binding two countries was signed in the Presidential Secretariat, I sought to explain the politico-economic context within which these kinds of agreements are being negotiated and signed. The slideset that I used is here. The audience was sparse, indicating the atrophied state of social science in Sri Lanka. The knowledge of trade agreements even among the panelists left much to be desired.
In April 2018, LIRNEasia’s Team Leader for Big Data Sriganesh Lokanathan traveled to New York to speak at UN Head Quarters. Here is what UN Global Pulse had to say about his speech. “You cannot fix what you cannot see,” said Sriganesh Lokanathan, Team Leader, Big Data for Development, LIRNEAsia. He argued that no one actor can achieve the promises of big data alone, and that the only way in which responsible and inclusive innovation can take place, is through collaborations and accountability by all stakeholders. He also underlined the importance of developing the capacity of citizens around the use of big data.
In an overview of studies on India in the United States, Devesh Kapur of the University of Pennsylvania has some less than complimentary things to say about RCTs. They mirror some of my comments about systematic reviews here, the next layer of RCTs, though I do not say anything about the benefits to reseachers like Devesh does. By contrast, there has been a considerable increase in India-related work in the social sciences. The field has become much more empirical and India offers several advantages for a researcher: large sample sizes, heterogeneity in multiple dimensions, relatively low cost of gathering data, and weak official oversight (which, in any case, is unlikely to be enforced). It would be hard to do many of these trials in the US or China.
Since 2016, we at LIRNEasia have had a strong engagement with the post-conflict Northern Province. In my role at ICTA, I was invited to inaugurate the incubator space established by the Northern Chamber of Information Technology on 26 June 2018. The seven-hour one-way journey did not justify a single event. So we crammed in a whole series of interactions, including a structured discussion organized by our partner Jaffna Managers’ Forum. Among the invited senior professionals and politicians were the Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, Provincial Council members, senior academics, etc.
Here is what I wrote about Smith v Maryland and the third party doctrine two years ago. The US government’s justification for the collection and use of telephone metadata pertaining to US citizens by the National Security Agency (NSA) exposed by Snowden was based on the third-party doctrine, derived from the above judgments (Savage, 2013). A 2013 decision from the District Court of the District of Columbia (perhaps the most important, because Washington DC is within the District) attracted significant attention because it explicitly contradicted the Smith rationale, stating that the surveillance of meta-data in 2013 was qualitatively different from that which was decided in 1979. However, a subsequent decision by a District Judge from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court responsible for oversight of the National Security Agency’s surveillance activities reaffirmed the third-party doctrine. Until the various appeals work their way up to the Supreme Court, Smith v Maryland will continue as the ruling precedent in the US.
There is little doubt that China has made achievements in the telecom sector. Their reforms were based on managed competition between state-owned companies. Now we will see the model replicated in a poor country. It will be good to see if it will work. In addition, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that the state operator would be split in two in order to foster greater competition in the market, saying: “There will be two telecom corporations and shares will be sold in both.
Two years ago, when I presented a paper on Myanmar’s policy challenges at the LKY School of Public Policy in Singapore, the key point that came up in discussion was what role of the military would play in the fourth operator. What we speculated is coming true, according to Frontier Myanmar: It is unusual for a country’s military leaders to attend the launch of a telecoms company. But at the launch of Mytel, Myanmar’s fourth telecoms operator, around 50 high-ranking military officers were in attendance, including Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and Defence Minister Lieutenant General Sein Win. Lieutenant General Tran Don, Vietnam’s Deputy Minister of Defence, also attended the June 9 ceremony. Telecom International Myanmar Company Limited, which operates under the brand name Mytel, is 49 percent owned by Viettel, which is wholly owned by Vietnam’s Ministry of Defense.
Google alerted me that a new article had been published on Upgrading Myanmar’s internet connection by the well-funded and hyperactive A4AI. I had the alerts on because I’ve been working in Myanmar since 2012. I was surprised. The article reminded me of what the lawyers in the Attorney General’s Department in Sri Lanka call a balloon opinion. The words are there.
Many of today’s civilian communication technologies had their beginnings in battlefield communications. So it is always a good idea to keep an eye on what’s being developed for the military. Here is one that does away with the need for hubs. MOBILE armies need mobile communications. Those communications, though, must be secure—and not just from eavesdropping.
Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka, a think tank within the Ministry of Defense, convened a half-day symposium on Managing Fake News last week, at which I was asked to speak. This subject is outside the remit of the ICT Agency. It is broadly within the interest area of LIRNEasia, which has ongoing work on hate speech. I never use the term popularized by the current President of the United States without enclosing the words in quotation marks. Newspapers were purveying fantastical stories for more than a century (today these stories would be described as “click bait”).
This was an issue that came up in the discussions leading up to our Nepal Hackathon. But the idea that apps should be developed to read currency notes did not go too far. Electronic payments should, of course, be designed with all disabled persons in mind. Here is a report on how the debate in playing out in India: Currency notes should be of different lengths and widths or have simple symbols embossed on them for easy identification, as this would be simpler than a separate device to recognise them, according to associations representing the visually impaired. The comments come after the Reserve Bank of India, in its bimonthly Monetary Policy Review, said it would look into the feasibility of developing a device or mechanism to help the visually challenged easily identify currency notes.
Hate speech on Facebook has been an incendiary issue. The latest action is unlikely to be received quietly. Nor is it likely to quell the problem completely. It banned the Buddhist nationalist movement Ma Ba Tha from its platform, as well as a pair of prominent monks known for stoking hatred towards the Rohingya. “They are not allowed a presence on Facebook, and we will remove any accounts and content which support, praise or represent these individuals or organisations,” said content policy manager Mr David Caragliano.
Few days back, I spent time at the Dompe District Hospital (a modest 100 bed hospital where people go for clinic visits but not for surgery) observing the impressive progress made in re-engineering work processes and introducing ICTs. The story is well told in Roar.lk. All the doctors worked with laptops and barcode readers. Each patient presents a barcode.
Trade unions are supposed to level the playing field for workers. But it’s something else that happens with unions in monopoly services provided by government. They engage in what is very close to extortion. Government doctors in Sri Lanka go on strike, harming innocent patients, demanding and getting privileged access to popular schools for their children and duty exemptions for the cars they buy. Railway workers demand salary increases even when the losses exceed total revenues.
A trade publication, Satellite Today, has written about an agreement between a satellite provider and the Ministry of Transport and Communication of Myanmar. Under the new multi-year, multi-transponder agreement, Intelsat 39 will host both C- and Ku-band satellite services for Myanmarsat-2, which will enable the government of Myanmar to significantly enhance its existing network as well as the networks of other mobile operators and media companies. This will advance the expansion of affordable, high-speed broadband and internet connectivity to government agencies, businesses and communities throughout the country. It will also support and advance the MOTC’s goal of ensuring that 95 percent of its population will have access to broadband connectivity by 2022. By integrating satellite solutions into its own mobile networks, the MOTC will be able to dramatically increase its overall network bandwidth, speed and reliability as it expands 3G and 4G services into the more remote areas of Myanmar.