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 |  
The news reports suggest that TRAI has already received nearly 1 million submissions to its recent “Consultation Paper on Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top (OTT) services” that has sparked a heated debate on net neutrality. In addition to drafting a response ourselves, we also turned our attention to the problem of analyzing such a large volume of responses. Significant amount of time and effort would be required to read and interpret, as well to even formulate a basic general outline of what the public and other stakeholders are trying to say. To put it mildly, TRAI is going to have its work cut out if they are to give each response due justice. Current and former researchers from our big data team, Kaushalya Madhawa, Danaja Maldeniya, and Nisansa de Silva brainstormed a technology augmented approach to the problem of analyzing the responses.
As LIRNEasia Senior Research Fellow, Payal Malik has made significant contributions to Indian telecom policy and regulation over the years. She also brings to bear a unique perspective because of her experience in implementing competition law. Going beyond the emotive, she has co-authored a thoughtful op-ed that all who engage in the net neutrality debate in India should pay attention to. India’s antitrust regime empowers the Competition Commission of India to block business activities that harm consumer welfare, restrict consumer choice or deny market access. Such enforcement with a precise enforcement mandate, exclusively targeting objectionable activities, while leaving other pro-competitive conduct that benefits consumers unregulated.
The most current draft of the the Sri Lanka Freedom of Information bill that is about to be presented to Cabinet has removed Parliament and Cabinet from its purview. They were included in the definition of “public authorities” who were bound to respond to information requests by citizens in the previous draft (at that time the Law was called the Right to Information Act). This appears to miss the essence of RTI, as I point out in a guest column in the Daily Mirror today: Freedom of Information (also known as Right to Information or RTI) laws are based on Principal-Agent theory. The public (the Principal) has delegated the task of running the country to the state, comprising officials as well as political authorities (the Agents). But the public (the Principal) cannot adequately monitor the Agents because of a radical information asymmetry.
Was surprised the Rio operations center from 2010 is still Exhibit 1. Has nothing much happened since? I can’t find any reports in the past tense about Bangalore water supply other than the para below. Guess it is still work in progress. A different view of resiliency considers the creation of “smart” infrastructure that is instrumented, interconnected and intelligent, and provides the owners with adaptive capacity, the foundation for resilience.
On April 10th, I delivered the sixth Distinguished Lecture of the Open University of Sri Lanka on the subject of making the university relevant. In an increasingly complex world where difficult decisions have to be made by those in government, there is demand for evidence to support political and policy choices. The university is the default source where one looks for evidence or for those who can generate evidence. But on most occasions, scholars and policy makers do not connect. Demands for teaching and for increased publications results in even less incentives for the conduct of policy-relevant research and engagement with policy makers.
I’ve been putting a significant amount of my time in the past three months into Constitutional reforms because an unusual “policy window” or Constitutional Moment opened up as a result of the outcome of the Sri Lankan Presidential election of January 8th. The Common Candidate of the opposition included in his manifesto a series of good governance measures that had been promoted by civil society activists for a long time but with little take up. When he won, these proposals, including rebalancing the relationship between the President and Parliament, electoral reform and the Right to Information, were suddenly the highest priority items of the new government’s agenda. The catch was that everything had to be done within 100 days, because the newly elected President did not have ironclad support from the largest party in Parliament and his manifesto also included a commitment to call a General Election after 100 days, which is around now. Considering it a citizenship duty, several of us got involved in what we considered the hardest problem, changing the electoral system.
A few days back, I included the following in a guest column for the Financial Times: Most of the 192 words specifying the Right to Information (RTI) as a fundamental right are superfluous. There is an entire bill in third draft that probably includes the very same language (if it does not, the Constitutional language will override it). All that is needed in the Constitution is one sentence “Subject to law, every person shall have a right of access to official information which is in the possession, custody or control of a public authority.” This was in the context of larger lament on the state of legislative drafting in Sri Lanka. What belongs in subsidiary legislation gets dumped into legislation.
That Quartz piece sure has legs. Ask Helani Galpaya, a researcher with policy think tank LIRNEasia, who in 2012 came across a curious anomaly while researching “bottom of pyramid” telephone users in Indonesia. When asked questions about the Internet, most of the respondents said they didn’t use it. But when asked about Facebook, most of them said they used it often. “In their minds, the Internet did not exist; only Facebook,” concluded Rohan Samarajiva, LIRNEasia’s head.
In our work on agricultural supply chains, we looked at how small holders could participate in export value chains because these were the most difficult cases and also where the money was. At least at the beginning of the adoption process, the greatest demand for ICT based innovation is likely to come from these supply chains. Air freight services are a necessary condition for most high-value agricultural exports. In this article on what the full liberalization of Sri Lanka’s Mattala Airport, I discuss the complementarity. For the most part, air freight services are produced jointly along with air passenger services.
In 1998, I was in the middle of an intense interconnection fight. It was worse than zero-sum. The Japanese incumbent telco which had purchased 35% of the shares of the Lankan incumbent telco had created a mindset that was extremely hostile to the competitive fixed telcos the government had licensed a year back. Interconnection disputes, where one party’s gain is seen as the other’s loss, are inherently difficult to resolve using even the best mediation techniques because of this. But in 1998 Sri Lanka, the problem was exacerbated by the desire of the incumbent and its Japanese mamagement to demote the parties requesting interconnection from equals to subordinate agents.
Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (GIFT)- The first smart city in India- is under construction at Gandhinagar in Gujarat. The proposed city plan includes ICT enabled infrastructure such as smart grids and automated waste collection. India has allocated 60 billion rupees form its annual federal budget for this financial year towards developing smart cities. Going by numerous comments made by the vocal online population, there seem to be a certain amount of skepticism about the  success of the planned city. Follow the link for more information on this in Reuters.
Last week I did a colloquium at LIRNEasia based on the second revision of the RTI Bill. Before I got around to doing a post, the third revision made its way out of the bowels of government. Significant improvements have been made, for which the Secretary of the Ministry of Media and Information should be congratulated. If only the rest of government followed his consultative approach, we’d be in much better shape with regard to the Constitutional and other reforms being rushed through by the interim government. The bill as its stands, including some comments and criticism, are analyzed here.

Network economics and regulation

Posted on April 14, 2015  /  2 Comments

Sri Lanka has decided to fully liberalize a white-elephant airport, an unusual act in this network industry which is riddled with protections for national flag carriers. Taking a respite from the Constitutional matters that preoccupy most Sri Lankans these days, I shared some ideas on the prospects for the fully liberalized airport with a journalist. These thoughts are more fully fleshed out in an op-ed that will appear shortly. Airlines are usually drawn to airports which give fifth freedoms, or the right to pick up passengers on the way to a third destinations, which is restricted by many countries to give a privilege to – usually – a badly run state-run domestic carrier. “Fifth freedom rights are valuable where there is are passengers to pick up,” explains Rohan Samarajiva of LirneAsia, a regional think tank based in Colombo.
A public consultation, invited by TRAI, on Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top (OTT) services has encountered furious netzines’ barrage in India. Comedy superstars of All India Bakchod (AIB) have produced a 9-minute video that brilliantly explains why net neutrality should be defended. It has also detected conspicuously bad elements in TRAI’s consultation document. The video ends with a link to savetheinternet.in that has a pre-written response to the 20 questions in the TRAI consultation paper.
With two MIT alumni on staff, LIRNEasia keeps an ear out for the good things happening at this premier engineering school. They have just announced the creation of a new Institute for Data, Systems and Society, intended to bring together researchers working in the mathematical, behavioral, and empirical sciences to capitalize on their shared interest in tackling complex societal problems. Our colleagues at Yuan Ze University in Taiwan have already established a big data center. We’ve tried to get this process started in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh too. Hopefully, the MIT move will energize these conversations which are proceeding with due deliberation.