I am sure you have heard enough about Big data ( processing and handling a large amount of data) and Data science ( how to make decisions with data). There is lots of chatter on how they are going to solve all the problems we know, bring about world peace, and how we will live happily ever after.
Let’s try to slow down, look around, and discuss what it can really do for a country like Sri Lanka. Well, first is that we can build some great Big Data tools, sell it and bring in lots of exports to Sri Lanka. However, that is selling shovels to the gold diggers at the gold rush, not a bad business proposition. Instead, let’s try to understand how Big Data can make a difference in day to day lives.
Thinking about BigData
Big data must be viewed not as a large infrastructure operation, but as a medium to connect different entities, collect, and analyze information that will let us instill order into existing processes and to create new processes. It could give us a holistic picture into what is going on, sometimes predict what will happen, and add order into chaos by ranking and rating different items and entities. For example, given a sea of information (e.g. web, social media, error tickets, requests for help, transactions, etc.), it can find out what are most important items and find out who has something important to tell. Furthermore, by creating alignment between individual gain and quality information in the system, it will nudge participants to create better content and sometimes better behavior.
Following are some use cases, in my opinion, that could help Sri Lanka. They are arranged by the order of how practical they are, and I have listed any reservations and challenges with each.
Urban Planning and Policy Decisions
(image credits) cc license.
Understand social dynamics like people geographic distribution, demographic distribution, mobility patterns etc to aid in policy and urban planning. This can be done through data sets like Census, CDR data, social media data ( in the right context) etc. The good news is this is already underway by Lirneasia ( see Big Data for Development Project, http://lirneasia.net/projects/bd4d/). However, there are many problems to solve. If you are a Sri Lankan research student looking for a thesis topic, chances are you can find dozen good problems in this project.
If you work in Colombo, you are no stranger to this. I travel daily about 35km to work, and on a bad day, we travel in about 15km/h. To be fair, Sri Lankan traffic is better than most places in India and even some places in US (e.g. San Fransisco 101 traffic). Yet a large number people waste lots of time, and with the rate of vehicle increase, things will get unmanageable soon.
Colombo traffic plan introduced 6-7 years ago fixed many things, and new roads certainly helped. However, we still cannot measure traffic fast enough. Most decisions are done via manual vehicle counting and few automatic counters. We need a way to measure traffic in higher resolution, faster, and accurately. The we can understand what is going on and plan around it.
Among ideas to collect data are
- Build an automatic traffic counter ( University of Moratuwa ENT department had built this already or we can use a number plate reading technology each IMO should end up less than 10K LKR per unit)
- Collect data from traffic officers, use social media feeds like @road_lk (e.g. see Real-time Natural Language Processing for Crowdsourced Road Traffic Alerts)
- Collect data from traffic officers
- Or a combination.
We must understand that reason this does not happen is neither due to want of technology nor due to want of money, but want of concentrated effort. If we have more data, fast enough, we can do better modeling and plan around bottlenecks. Also eventually, we can act on traffic incidents realtime.
Manage Doners and Charities
We are a culture that donates from what little we have. Sri Lankan, both rich and poor donate alike. However, it is not clear how much of that is put to good use, how much get lost on the way, or how much lasting impressions they leave.
Using data collection, social media, and independent verifications, we could build much more accountability and visibility into the charitable activities, and we can prioritize and try to make a lasting impression.
For an example, if a random person asked for a help, I might not trust him. However, if a newspaper reporter has done a report, then I have a bit more trust. If a well-known person in society asked for help, there is even more trust. However, if a recommendation come from a personal friend whom I know, that is even better. If someone with credibility can pledge to follow up, it will make a big difference. We could build such a system, rank requests as well as people involved, and bring in greater trust and efficiency into the system. The model can be extended to independent verification of what was carried out, and also to track long-term change. Data collected over the process can be used to rate different parties in the process as well as to optimize the process.
Day to day Maintenence
It seems to get anything fix, Sri Lanka needs to create news. A system that needs a new paper report to get a public lavatory fixed cannot go too far. This can be fixed by borrowing an issue reporting system from open source. We need a Geo-tagged complaints and maintenance request map that let people up vote and down vote tickets with photographic evidence. Then government authorities can monitor this, and act accordingly. The government can enforce SLA to check and act. However, the most important aspect is that this creates a paper trail that will make sure that relevant authorities cannot claim ignorance. Moreover, you cannot stop issues being reported by chasing away people.
Do we have connectivity to make this work? I think we do. Chances are that it is easy to find a Nanasala (Community Internet Stations placed in public places in Sri Lanka), rather than going to an office and convincing officials to write down a complain.
Will we sink in a sea of complaints? Yes, we will! This is where data science comes in. We need a rating system against tickets and reporters that enforces reputation. That can be done!
It is worth noting that Garbage handling is an another version of the same problem that we can solve using a similar method where people can report about illegal dumpings, intelligence, and inefficient collection.
Few More ideas
- Law and Order ( Police investigation) – tracking data about crimes committed, building a known database about known felons that people can check against, studying distribution and dynamics of crime and adjusting officer deployments.
- Health records – let each person keep his own health record history and ability for researchers to anonymously query health records to find higher level patterns. Furthermore, let patients rate and complain about doctors and a system to verify and act.
- Health – Build a wearable based in-home health care solution ( good idea for a startup) that is based on a subscription. Sri Lanka is one of the countries that treat their elderly very well.
- Connecting Export Opportunities and Social Enterprises – Bring in technology to what organizations like Sarvodaya are doing while act as the bridge via finding potential markets, introducing potential suppliers, providing training and micro-financing.
- Crisis response – analyzing and coordinating efforts
- Disease spread – hotspot identification, prediction, preventive actions