Big Data 4 Development

The Deputy Mayor of New York City under Bloomberg and Google are launching a new initiative, presumably for cities in the developed economies, that will take an approach different from the sensor-intensive centralized models promoted by IBM and the like, according to NYT: Major technology companies, like IBM and Cisco, already have large businesses that apply information technology, to improving the efficiency of cities. IBM has used its researchers and technical prowess in projects like traffic management in Stockholm and microlevel weather forecasting to predict the location of life-threatening mudslides in Rio de Janeiro. Sidewalk Labs, Mr. Doctoroff said, planned to work in “the huge space between civic hackers and traditional big technology companies.” While big technology companies take a “top-down approach and seek to embed themselves in a city’s infrastructure,” he said Sidewalk Labs would instead seek to develop “technology platforms that people can plug into” for things like managing energy use or altering commuting habits.
LIRNEasia was among team of researchers under the umbrella of Data-­Pop Alliance was contracted to produce a synthesis report as part of a DfID project on Big Data for climate change and disaster resilience in developing countries, meant to feed into the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit. In this context I participated in a discussion workshop in London on June 5, 2015. Also participating were researchers from Flowminder (working on big data and climate change issues in Bangladesh) and University College London (analyzing all kinds of big data, including GPS locations of fishing fleets worldwide and data from public-transport payment cards. There was much discussion about how big data research could be made more responsive to the needs of users (defined as including citizens rather than government officials) and on inclusiveness. As the only South-based research organization that had obtained data and conceptualized and executed big data research, LIRNEasia was asked to present its experience in the form of a case study on how barriers to data access could be overcome.
I was recently asked to justify my claim that the big data debate should not be reduced to a “competition of imaginations” between hype and pessimism. The future is unknowable, so we have little alternative but to use our imaginations to discuss the future. We can extrapolate from what is known which is better than pure scenarios, but even this is not perfect. What happened yesterday need not happen tomorrow and what happened in one country under specfic conditions may not be replicated in other circumstances.inning But that is still better than scenario spinning.
LIRNEasia’s ongoing big data research was recently presented at the 13th International Conference on Social Implications of Computers in Developing Countries held in Negombo from May 20-22. LIRNEasia researcher Danaja Maldeniya presented preliminary work on transport forecasting using  mobile network big data under the conference track ICT4D Sri Lanka : Challenges, Opportunities and Solutions. |paper|presentation slides|
Samarajiva, R., Lokanathan, S., Madhawa, K., Kriendler, G., & Maldeniya, D.
Multiple authors; truly multi-disciplinary; published in the center of gravity of our work. I am excited, even though it is still behind a paywall at the Economic and Political Weekly: There is a middle path that positions the citizens who are the ultimate beneficiaries of urban development as the primary sensors. Instead of seeing the city as a clock-work machine that can be perfectly controlled, this approach recognizes the inherent complexity of the system and supports incremental changes, following the Deng Xiaoping dictum of “crossing the river by feeling the stones.” Experimentation and learning are integral to the approach. This low-cost approach is especially appropriate for the organically developed, congested cities in developing countries where the costs of installing and maintaining city-owned sensors would be quite high.
Maldeniya, D., Lokanathan, S., & Kumarage, A.
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. 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. Given low levels of “datafication” of transactions and records in developing countries, analysis of credit-card use or even social-media use is unlikely to yield coverage approaching n=all as in developed countries. Mobile transaction-generated data (including Call Detail Records or CDRs) are an exception. Because they can yield information on movement of people, they have great potential to inform a host of policy domains: urban and transportation planning, health policy by enabling the modeling of the spread of infectious diseases, socio-economic monitoring, etc.
LIRNEasia Founding Chair, Professor Rohan Samarajiva’s comments that Sri Lanka should facilitate an open data culture were highlighted in a recent issue of the Sunday Times Sri Lanka (Business Times section).  These comments were made at a Business Times panel discussion on ICT innovation and awareness held on Wednesday 13th May at the newspaper office auditorium. The article notes Professor Samarajiva’s observations that facilitating an open data culture would foster products being built out of the public Big Data resources currently restricted by the government.  Professor Samarajiva also observed that the Sri Lankan government could help local innovators by allocating pilot programmes for new technologies, pointing to the example of MillenniumIT, which received initial assistance and continued support from the Colombo Stock Exchange. The article also notes Professor Samarajiva’s comments on problem areas that are a priority for Sri Lanka, including slow broadband speeds and the need to put proper payment systems such as PayPal in place.
UNESCAP in partnership with the International Think Tank for Landlocked Developing Countries (ITT-LLDC) held an Expert Workshop on ICT for Promoting Inclusive and Disaster Resilient Development, from 14-15 May 2015 in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. I represented LIRNEasia and shared our recently completed research enhancing the role of ICTs for Disaster Risk Management(DRM), that was led by Shazna Zuhyle. I made two presentations. The first looked at emerging trends in DRM including the use of mobile network big data for disaster risk mitigation and planning. The second looked at the role of ICTs for DRM in SriLanka.
Hernan Galperin from DIRSI had organized a session entitled Data for development: the good, the bad and the ugly. Martin Hilbert was originally featured as the star speaker who would tell the audience about the wonders of big data. Well, he did not turn up. So it was left to LIRNEasia, where we actually get our hands dirty analyzing big data of relevance to our primary clients, the poor of the developing world, to talk about big data. The slides are here.
Interesting reaction to Ken Cukier’s data evangelism at MSF. Additional proof that Ken wrote the editorial on ebola and mobile data for the Economist. The idea that big data from mobile phones could have helped predict how Ebola spreads and so saved lives in West Africa, if only telecom companies had released it, seemed both powerful and out of sync at a gathering of Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) staff last week. Ken Cukier, data editor of The Economist, kicked off the first of the medical aid charity’s two scientific days on 7 May with a charismatic talk that made the case for big data as the inevitable future and, in the case of Ebola, the “gold dust” that could have reduced fatalities. It was difficult to judge the audience’s reaction — there was enthusiasm on Twitter but big data came up just once again in the course of the day.
A special seminar on big data was recently organized as part of the 46th UN Statistical Commission meetings, which were held at the UN from 3-6 March 2015. ITU, which was participated in the seminar, mentioned LIRNEasia’s ongoing research on leveraging mobile network big data for development. LIRNEasia’s Team Leader for big data research, Sriganesh Lokanathan, was the main author on big data in ITU’s Measuring the Information Society 2014 report, which formed the foundation for ITU’s presentation at the event.
Just a few days ago, the big data team posted some thoughts on how TRAI could analyze the one million plus comments it received in response to its consultation paper on OTT services. The Business Standard has extensively quoted from that collectively authored suggestions on how technology could help productively mobilize the flood of citizen ideas enabled by technology. Last year, the corporate affairs ministry had commissioned a platform to receive responses on the hundreds of sections and sub-sections of the Companies Act. The platform, built by Corporate Professionals, allowed section-wise responses; it classified responses under different heads such as drafting errors and conceptual issues. Further, separate log-in ids were provided for different sections of stakeholders.
LIRNEasia’s Team Leader for Big Data Research, Sriganesh Lokanathan, and our former Researcher Manager, Roshanthi Gunaratne recently published a paper in the March 2015 special issue on big data of the journal Communications & Strategies. Whilst the journal article titled “Mobile Network Big Data for Development:  Demystifying the Uses and Challenges” is not available for free an earlier version of the paper is available HERE.  
LIRNEasia’s ongoing big data research was recently presented at the prestigious NetMob conference held at MIT from April 8-10, 2015, attended by some of the foremost academics and researchers from the world working with mobile network big data. LIRNEasia research fellows Gabriel Kreindler and Yuhei Miyauchi made a presentation on their ongoing work on quantifying urban economic activity using mobile phone data. | Presentation Slides | Abstract | Our other ongoing work on understanding land use characteristics in Colombo city (being lead by our researcher Kaushalya Madhawa) was selected for a poster presentation.  | Abstract |