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Open Data Dialogue in Sri Lanka

Posted on October 17, 2015  /  0 Comments

This past Thursday (15th October 2015) I was invited to give my comments at event, alliteratively titled “An open dialogue on open data.” The dialogue was organized by InterNews and Transparency International and held at the Sri Lanka Press Institute in Colombo. I was part of a panel that included Nalaka Gunawardene and Sanjana Hattotuwa. I was asked to speak on the challenges and issues of Big and Open Data which itself is a bit of a misnomer in Sri Lanka, since there are currently no datasets in Sri Lanka that can be considered (or even amenable to be considered) as both “big” and “open”. As a preamble to my comments I used some brief slides to highlight LIRNEasia’s ongoing big data research that LIRNEasia is is conducting, leveraging mobile network big data to produce insights for developmental policy.
Madhawa, K., Lokanathan, S., Samarajiva, R., & Maldeniya, D.
Madhawa, K., Lokanathan, S., Maldeniya, D., & Samarajiva, R.
The full webcast of the Shades of Open session which dealt with whether data held by private entities should be open is available here. At the session moderated by Stefaan Verhulst, I framed the issues within the context of principal-agent theory and competition and illustrated my arguments from our experience in working with mobile network big data. I went first, so my opening presentation is at 4:26. The second intervention is at around 26:00.
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|
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.
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.
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.
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 |  
Lokanathan, S & Gunaratne, R. L.
Last week in Bangkok (23-26th March, 2015), at the invitation of the UN Development Group (UNDG) Asia-Pacific Secretariat, I had the opportunity to brief country heads and senior staff of UN agencies as well as from the Resident Coordinator’s office on how to leverage big data, for the data revolution needed to measure the progress in achieving the forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The event was the Lessons Learnt Workshop for Countries Designing UN Strategic Development Frameworks (UNDAF) in 2015. 13 countries were represented: Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, DPRK, Indonesia, Iran, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Mongolia, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Thailand, and Vietnam. The key point that I left with them was that National Statistical Organizations (NSOs) in developing economies are not yet set up to be the key champion for leveraging big data for development, let alone to certify standards. The UN’s role in my opinion was: to inform and catalyze the in-country discussions with examples from other countries.
Today I had the opportunity to speak to a mostly private sector audience in Tokyo, looking to leverage opportunities from geo-spatial information. The venue was at the G-Space x ICT International Symposium organized by Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, the apex body responsible for ICT policy in Japan. I was invited to speak about LIRNEasia’s experience in leveraging mobile network big data for public purposes. In the subsequent panel discussion, I was asked how to enable international collaboration in such efforts. My answer was two part: the very realizable possibility of sharing technical know-how both in developing human capacity as well as the infrastructure required to analyze such data sets; and the potentially long path that must be walked to enable greater sharing of such data.
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.