WHO IS EMMANUEL LETOUZE?
“We need better data for governments and policymakers to make better decisions. But the reason why there are still big problems in the world is not insufficient data.”
It is no secret that we live in a truly connected world. I can speak from experience that it is possible to be online in every nook and cranny of the planet – from deep inside the Ugandan countryside, to the middle of war torn Syria to the Islands of Fiji. The opportunity to connect to “the net” anywhere, for whatever reason – business, social, and yes, even evil – is here, now. There are many consequences, externalities and unknowns associated with this connected reality – some of which we are painfully aware of, like trolling, and some we don’t have the ability to image yet (for example, what happens when virtual reality becomes ubiquitous)?
One of the things we know, is that every time you use your mobile phone, swipe a credit card, surf the internet or basically any other activity that involves passing digital information across the internet, you leave a small, unique breadcrumb or fingerprint behind. If you were to capture and review these breadcrumbs for one individual, across any length of time, you would have the the ability to learn an astonishing amount about them. If we perform this exercise across communities and whole populations, who generate what we now call “big data,” the learning and insights can be profound.
Today’s guest on the 109th episode of the Terms of Reference podcast is Emmanuel Letouzé and Emmanuel has dedicated his career to thinking about how big data can be used to help those most in need. He is the Director and co-Founder of Data-Pop Alliance, a Visiting Scholar at MIT’s Media Lab, a Fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, a Research Associate at ODI, and a Non-Resident Adviser at the International Peace Institute (IPI).
Emmanuel is the author of the UN Global Pulse’s White Paper, “Big Data for Development: Challenges and Opportunities”, where he worked as Senior Development Economist in 2011-12, and the lead author of the report “Big Data for Conflict Prevention” and of the 2013 and 2014 OECD Fragile States reports. He is also a regular speaker on Big Data and development issues. In 2006-09 he worked for UNDP in New York, including on the Human Development Report research team. In 2000-04 he worked in Hanoi, Vietnam, for the French Ministry of Finance as a technical assistant on public finance and official statistics.
As you’ll hear us discuss towards the end of the interview, Emmanuel is also a political cartoonist.
You can connect with Emmanuel here:
IN TOR 109 YOU’LL LEARN ABOUT:
- How big data, while not new, is only becoming prominent and potential in development as of recent.
- How connectivity can be the push big data needs to impact development across the board.
- The difference between technology reliant on people versus institutions.
- The ambitious Open Algorithm (OpAl) idea, of a platform where queries and insight are public while data remains secure.
- How Data-Pop workshops go beyond skills and programming tools, and involve historical, political and ethical topics to foster a generation of “data shapers.”
- What big open data and collaboration meant for the Ebola crisis in West Africa, the pitfalls, and the questions we should make for the next crisis.
- The problems UN and similar organizations face with big data and innovation.
- Emmanuel’s successful account of collaboration and results in local initiatives.
- What big data processes, including capacity building, need to become standard operations.
OUR CONVERSATION INCLUDES THE FOLLOWING:
- Overseas Development Institute
- French Development Agency (AFD)
- Hewlett Foundation
- World Bank
- United Nations
- LCD Soundsystem, James Murphy
- Big Data
- Data Literacy, Capacity Building
- UN Global Pulse’s White Paper, “Big Data for Development: Challenges and Opportunities”
- Ed Snowden
- R programming language
- Python programming language
- Digital footprints, passive data generation
- History of statistics, national statistical offices
- Standard operations and collaboration
- Urban Dynamics
- Political Cartoons
- Data Visualization
- New York
- West Africa: Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone
- Bogotá, Colombia
EPISODE CRIB NOTES
Past 15 years working in development, interested in data. Emmanuel is an economist and demographer.
’13 Em decides to “create something on big data and development.” It would involve training, capacity building, research, police advisory.
Partners: Harvard, MIT, Overseas Development Institute.
In a nutshell: “A joint initiative to promote a big data revolution through collaborative research, capacity building.“
Big Data: new but not so new
Stephen: If CNN mentions it, it existed for years.
“Applied to development, it is in its intellectual infancy.“
“We still don’t know how it is going to change the world.“
Big Data sets have existed for a long time, as it is processing capacity.
Actually, Internet’s bandwidth and reach are bar none as of very recent.
But is it capable and ready to impact humanity’s biggest problems?
“Big data comes with risks and challenges” ethics, privacy, surveillance.
Regulation, “Snowden was a game changer,” algorithms are “weapons of math destruction,” power dynamics, challenge to the powers that be.
All in all, “power is on the people, their challenge is to use it before corporations.“
What will be our new printing press, our new mass literacy?
Are institutions always the first movers?
Data-Pop promotes data literacy. It begins with discussing what it means.
Definition is a critical instance. Em is not satisfied with “the ability to use data,” since concerns about use of data gathered without consent have no place in the definition.
Workshops. They include work on concepts and tools. They also go into technical skills and programming languages such as R and Python. They also provide a historical overview of data, what has it done for development and democracy, political economics and ethics of challenges. “People come out willing and capable to shape the future, question existing power dynamics.“
Is “data” problematic?
Stephen: it can be a nebulous concept. Today low math skills are socially acceptable.
“We work outside official statistical offices.” Official statistics are a subset of all data available. National offices have a part on the origin of statistics about 2 centuries ago, concepts and methods share a relationship with policy.
There is structured as well as unstructured data.
Then there are the “breadcrumbs,” our passive digital footprint. All we do on the web, and what some people map over digital imagery.
Information is no longer exclusive to governments, in neither its production nor its use.
We know a lot more about society. It opens horizons and pitfalls.
Real applications of interconnected datasets
Ebola in West Africa. Cell phone data in hands of researchers and respondents. They are able to prioritize and anticipate. There were also detractors about making such a vast amount of data so available.
At first data was accessible. For starters nobody had made a clear case on how cell phone data could help while outweighing its cons.
Today benefits are clear, and the question is about the next time, which discussions to have, which data to share with whom.
OpAl (Open Algorithm). The next generation of access and processing systems. If methods are open and are the only way to access data, insight would be public while private information remains private. A platform where everyone sends queries. It implies a nonparallel level of collaboration, in technical (standards) and political aspects. But it has great potential.
Is anyone funding something close to OpAl?
“What is the future of funding in the humanitarian and development field?“
New actors and models are growing at various rates.
Data initiative still receive most funds from traditional donors, governments and organizations.
Data-Pop gets funds from the French Development Agency, Hewlett Foundation (capacity building), World Bank.
Em still looks for new funding streams and sources, as new possibilities arise.
Em left the UN.
UN does not care about innovative people
“UN works under the assumption that all governments are always well intended.” In reality there are cultures and forces shaping activity.
Development at the UN considers nations as clients, which for Em is problematic.
What it all will look like in 5 years
The future of the development space. What is and is not desirable?
Em hopes Data-Pop is still around, with stronger partnerships.
Some constraints will cease, “hopefully.“
Larger role, influence of academic partners.
Wider data spaces for governments, especially for developing ones. “A systemic evolution.“
Participation of the private sector on an actual ecosystem.
Better ownership. Who owns it, and who will own the data? Who should?
Users need to have “a better say.” Not one sole controller.
Biggest disruption ever as of May, 2016
From implications to applications (more active role on the genesis and nature).
Empowerment. Back to the data literacy problem.
How the deployment of resources impacts actors. Has data improved democracy? “No“
Data has promoted discussions about specific topics. Hopefully some institutional positions will receive a challenge.
How data for development organizations collaborate, lead
6, 7 members. Data-Pop in the middle.
“A mix of opportunistic and strategic considerations.“
Focus on local activities and ecosystems. Bogotá, Senegal, Dakar, Mexico. “We try to see what really matters to them.“
Topics tend to rhyme: poverty, inequality, conflict, stability, social cohesion, climate, urban dynamics.
Then they assess the extent of the effect they can have, with what they have developed so far. Advances are firm, if small.
New York is the capital of data collaboration. Consensus is a basic stone and a success considering the diversity of agendas.
Data standard ops?
“The organization is fairly young, even if members are not.“
“We are not at a stage where what we are producing is a standard.“
Data literacy professional training workshops have the potential to gain wide adoption.
OpAl also has possibilities to become a reference.
Current on-the-ground work could evolve common methodologies.
Em’s favorite bits
“Our internal network.” Conversations, references.
International community partners. Urban Dynamics.
Slack, there are some channels, including a links group.
Em is a political cartoonist. “It was supposed to be an unrelated activity.“
Data Visualization. “Where data meets art.” “Big Data is the blending of disciplines.” LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy made a song using U.S. Open sounds.
Please share, participate and leave feedback below!
If you have any feedback you’d like to share for me or Emmanuel, please leave your thoughts in the comment section below! I read all of them and will definitely take part in the conversation.
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