big data for development

LIRNEasia was proud to partner on Sri Lanka’s first national symposium on Data for Sustainable Development. Held over two days (March 20-21), the event offered a unique platform to share LIRNEasia’s views and experience on the use of data for the SDGs, particularly in relation to our big data work. Sriganesh Lokanathan, Team Leader – Big Data research moderated the first session of the symposium, and was part of a panel discussion on day 2. I had the opportunity to showcase LIRNEasia’s experience on using Big data for SDGs at a session that was co-presented with UN Global Pulse. At the first session, Sriganesh moderated a panel that emphasized the importance of data to achieve the SDGs, and set the tone for the symposium.
The digital world is exploding with uncountable data. Millions of users generate information via thousands of sources every day. This data is then consumed for a number of purposes from business to entertainment. Is there a purpose and potential for big data beyond business and entertainment? The big data team at LIRNEasia is trying to answer this question.
Last weekend (3-4 February 2017), I along with my colleagues Shazna and Dedunu visited University of Dhaka. We were able to share our experiences in conducting policy relevant research on big data for development in Sri Lanka (see slides), with both faculty and students. The other objective was to meet with the faculty and staff associated with the Data and Design Lab at the university, which is a collaboration between Dhaka University and LIRNEasia. The lab is led by Dr. Moinul Zaber, who is a member of the faculty at Dhaka University and a Research Fellow with LIRNEasia.
I was invited to speak to the staff of the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission in Seville last Tuesday (11th October 2016). Their colleagues from Ispra, Italy joined in via video conference as well. I talked about LIRNEasia’s experiences and lessons in leveraging big data for public purposes. The slides that I used are available HERE.
We have been engaging with local universities from the start of our big data work, not just to source researchers and collaborators, but also to broaden the horizons of students. That big data can be leveraged for public purposes is not something that they had previously thought of till we arrived on the scene. This week (18th October 2016) we continued those efforts, conducting a lecture for students at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura on our ongoing big data for development research. The slides are available HERE.
LIRNEasia was a core partner for Sri Lanka’s first national summit on “Foresight & Innovation for Sustainable Human Development” that was convened by UNDP and the Ministry of National Policies and Economic Affairs. Held in Colombo from 24-25 May 2016, the summit brought together more than 300 people from government, private sector, and civil society from all over the country. Developing foresight and fostering innovation is a priority for the government and underscored by the Prime Minster’s attendance at the event. I spoke on the first day after the opening. My talk was on the leveraging both new and traditional data if the goal is to get towards real-time responsiveness and enhanced resilience.
Yesterday Sriganesh and I had the pleasure of presenting LIRNEasia’s big data work at the 3rd session of the Colombo Big Data Meetup, a prominent local meetup group focusing on big data and data science, domains still very much in their infancy in Sri Lanka. We spoke to a diverse audience of nearly 150 IT professionals, academics, statisticians and enthusiasts. The presentation was followed by a panel discussion which included Sriganesh, Dr. Shehan Perera of the Computer Science Department of University of Moratuwa, and myself. The discussion touched on a range of topics including practical aspects of running a successful big data operation,  learning data science, democratization of data and collective privacy.
Today I had the pleasure to talk about LIRNEasia’s ongoing multi-disciplinary big data for development research at the IDRC Asian Regional Office in Delhi. The work that we have been doing in this space has been funded primarily by IDRC. It was engaging talking to experts with interests in different domains (agriculture, health, governance, climate change adaptability, urban and transportation policy, electricity, livelihoods) working in India as well as elsewhere. The slideset I used is here.
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.
On 8th August 2014, LIRNEasia held an event titled “Big data for development: Responsible use of mobile meta-data to support public purposes” in Negombo, Sri Lanka that was attended by all the MNOs in Sri Lanka as well as MNOs/ industry representatives from Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. The purpose of the event was two-fold: Show how mobile network big data could provide timely and policy relevant evidence for development using illustrations from Sri Lanka and elsewhere; and Discuss the draft guidelines developed by LIRNEasia for how MNOs could share their data with third parties using it for public good, whilst also minimizing the harms from such big data analytics. This event was the first in a series of steps that will hopefully lead towards the adoption of voluntary guidelines by MNOs to facilitate such activity. The presentations from the event as well as the draft guidelines are below. The agenda is available HERE.
The work that we have been doing using mobile network big data over the last year, has been challenging on many fronts. I’ve spent some time reflecting on some of the analytical challenges that are faced in the Big Data paradigm and the common fallacies that I sometimes find in the broader discussion I see on the subject. What is below are some of my preliminary thoughts, which I am working up into a paper. Still a work in progress. Comments welcome.
Today, our CEO Helani Galpaya was on a panel “Harnessing the power of convergence and big data for enterprise success” at a Sri Lankan summit called “Enterprise 2.0: building future ready enterprises” (full video of the panel session is available HERE). I thought some of the ideas she proposed about were worthy of further discussion.  LIRNEasia is curently working on utilizing telecom network Transaction Generated Information (TGI) to conduct public interest research using big data. One of her comments was about how companies are not fully appreciating the value of the data that they have.