A World-Changing Combination: Dr. Claire Melamed on Big Data, Collaboration and the SDGs
This post was originally published at LUCA's Blog.
We had a chance to sit down with Dr. Claire Melamed to discuss her work with Big Data and the SDGs, and why collaboration is crucial to meeting these important goals. Telefónica is proud to be a collaborator on this project, and we also discussed the specific role that telcos can play in this Global Partnership.
So Claire, how important is having mobile data to the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (GPSDD)?
Absolutely critical, as telco data, along with many other new sources of data, have great value and an immediate practical application as governments try to fill the data gaps that limit progress on the SDGs. We're already seeing some of the valuable insights that using telco data can bring, and it's really important that this work continues. We're really excited to work with companies like Telefónica on this and there's a lot we can do together!
We have governments and others with hugely increasing demands for data as they try to run better services and better meet the needs of their populations. And we’re facing increasing global threats such as epidemics and climate change that have been developing over a longer period of time, where data is also needed to understand and to tackle them. We also live in a world that is producing more data than ever before, through mobile phones and many other new technologies.
At the GPSDD, we try to understand, and to test out in practice, how new sources of data, combined with established methods, can help to meet this growing demand for data, and also increase the speed and reduce the costs of providing data. So another way of looking at what the partnership does is serve as a meeting place between supply - new sources of data - and demand - the data that governments and others need every day.
Making the most of this new opportunity means bringing together some different groups that previously haven't worked together. Telcos are a really critical part of this picture, and we need them to be involved.
What the Partnership is for is to bring together those different groups that previously haven’t worked together. None of the established institutions within the UN or elsewhere are really set up to broker that sort of collaboration because it is so new to everybody and we’re sort of making it up as we go along. I think telcos are a really critical part for that.
What characteristics do you look for in the telcos that you work with as key factors in success for the partnership? Such as having a CDO, a data monetization process already in place or other factors.
The heart of it is just a willingness to roll up their sleeves and get involved, a desire to be a part of this story. A desire to look beyond the narrow definition of the business model and think about what are some of the ways telcos can use the data they already have to reach beyond the services they are already offering. Sometimes that’s about trying to create new business opportunities and platforms, and sometimes that’s also combined with corporate social responsibility. Other times, the impetus is a more political engagement with the government over regulating and institutional frameworks. There are a lot of ways in.
But what we really look for is just a desire to engage and a willingness to experiment. One of the things which is so exciting is the range of models that are emerging for that experimentation to take place.
That is very flexible, depending on the particular problem you are trying to solve and the particular business model of the telco. We have some models that are about transferring data to a third party and the data analysis and innovation being done there, and other models that are about putting the algorithm into the data, so the data remains in the company – the question going in rather than the data coming out. There are lots of different methods emerging and new ones on the horizon, so the important thing is to just keep trying.
There has been a lot of talk in the media about the SDGs being under threat with everything going on politically in the world right now. Do you think these movements that we’re seeing around the world will slow down the push towards more open data and more data awareness in the political realm?
I think there are some immediate threats, of course. There are always political twists and turns coming from anywhere, and we should be expecting that in the fifteen-year period of the goals. But at the most basic level, I am still quite optimistic because I think people haven't changed. Governments change, but ultimately people still want good healthcare, good schools for their kids, to be able to breathe the air when they go outside, to live in a good house and all of the rest of it, and that is really what the sustainable development goals are about. It’s a framework within which to define what people want.
One of the things that I was involved with in a previous job in the lead-up to the Sustainable Development Goals was a huge global survey that involved 10 million people. We were asking people what their priorities were and tried to feed that into the governments who were working on the goals. And the things that people wanted were all the things I’ve just listed: jobs, healthcare, school and all the things you would expect. That hasn’t changed, so ultimately in order to stay in power, democratic governments still have to offer people what they want, and that aligns with the agenda of the goals.
What were you doing before you joined GPSDD?
I was the managing director at the Oversees Development Institute, which is a think tank based in London. I have never worked in the private sector, but have jumped around in my career between civil society organizations, academia, and a bit of time working in the UN before GPSDD.
You joined GPSDD in October 2016. What are you proudest of in your time there so far?
Well, it's been quite a short time. But the two trips I've done most recently to Kenya and Ghana were very interesting because we are working very closely with the governments to achieve their own priorities and to help them broker the relationships they need in the private sector and with other governments. Both trips helped me to really understand the power of the global network and the power that brokering these partnerships can have. In both cases, we have incredibly strong, committed and dynamic government partners who are amazing and a privilege to work with. And they have a clear sense of what they want to do and how they want to do it. They really value the role of the partnership in helping them open doors and adding that extra political impetus that sometimes working with an international organization can bring.
For example in Ghana, we worked with the Ghana Statistical Service to organize a national forum on data and were able to bring together lots of different government ministries, civil society organisations, and companies. The vice president of Ghana gave the keynote address, and it was a great way to use that moment to create high-level political support to help them achieve what they want to achieve.
Both of those trips left me with a really strong sense of the power of the global brokering network and what it is we can do with it in working with partners.
Would you say that the partnerships you can form through GPSDD have more value for developing countries, or is it rather a matter of different use cases for each country?
I think it is going to look very different in different countries, but all countries are really excited about them. If you look at what is happening in the UK now, the Office of National Statistics is engaging with data science and trying to rethink in a fundamental way how governments engage with citizens and the way that they use data to drive decisions and help them run their services. A lot of that is based around experiments they are doing with Big Data. So there is a huge agenda there for rich countries, but it is different agenda, as is often the case. Here in the UK, for example, we have a very well-managed system of civil registration so we roughly know how many people live in the country at any given time. Whereas that is not really the case in places like Ghana. There may well be ways that telco data can be used to help fill those gaps that exist in Ghana that don’t exist in the UK.
On the other hand, some of the things that are happening in countries like Kenya and Ghana are more along the lines of leapfrogging over what is done in countries like the UK or the USA. They are finding ways to use Big Data and its technical solutions to drive service delivery in ways that are jumping a few generations ahead of what is even going on in some of the richer countries at the moment. So I think there is a lot to be done in all countries. But what they do is going to look a bit different depending on where they are starting from and what their priorities are.
Does this leapfrogging tendency that you are seeing have to do with cost, speed or for the sake of innovation?
I think it is a bit of both. It is, quite rightly, a cost driven thing, because if you can do the same thing as well but cheaper, why would you not do that? That is one of the great benefits that some of these technologies can bring, and then that frees up money for something else and that is all for the good. It is also partly about speed.
One of the huge benefits of Big Data, and telco data in particular, is speed and being able to know what is happening now.
Traditionally, many low-income countries have relied on survey data to track outcomes such as health outcomes, population movement and things like that. But when you do a survey, sometimes you don’t get the results for two or three years. So some of the experiments that are being done to address this are using mobile phone top ups as a proxy for poverty data, meaning that you can get a reasonably accurate map of poverty in your country every day, whereas traditionally governments are used to seeing a two- to three-year timeline on that.
So as well as cost, speed is the other huge attraction here. Speed in terms of what you can know and how that informs better policy making, but also to run better services and get better feedback.
This isn’t just about telco data but also the use of a mobile phone as a communications device, such as to help nurses in rural clinics to report on when drugs are out of stock. Rather than sending a letter or some cumbersome faxed piece of paper that then has to be handed between 17 different departments, you can just set up a system where you can connect straight to the relevant procurement department in the ministry of health and out comes the drugs. UNICEF has been developing this sort of system in some countries and availability of drugs in rural areas has gone up hugely.
There is a cost factor, a speed factor and a responsiveness factor. Those are just three of the really good reasons to try and leapfrog.
Finally, what would be your wish in going forward with partnerships in order to make things happen faster and more effectively?
There is always going to be a slow track and a fast track. Some of these things you should do slowly and carefully, like the more research-oriented methodological work. For example, working out what sort of methods should be used to combine mobile data with survey data, with census data, with data from satellites, to really create a 3-D picture of their country. These sorts of things take time because they are difficult to work out so they happen slowly.
But the big jumps that can be made are the big barriers that I see on the political and economic side rather than the technological side. On the technological side, either we know a lot of what is possible or we know how to find out. But on the political side, the questions are about the ways to manage the new systems that are emerging that will work for everybody and how to create the right incentive structures to make it easier for data to flow between institutions, or at least the insights to flow between institutions. That's partly about data flowing from the private sector to the public sector, but it's about data flowing within government departments.
What are the institutional, legal, and regulatory changes that can be made to help that data flow faster? There are also the investment challenges. What are the political arguments that can be used to encourage governments to invest in the capacity they need?
When I was in Kenya, some of the government departments that I met had really constrained capacity. They only had one or two highly qualified statisticians in the central department and even fewer out in the districts. So in those cases, even if they did get access to loads and loads of data, it would not be massively useful because they would not be able to actually get the insights from it.
It's about investments and things that need to go together around better legal frameworks and economic incentives that allow you to date more easily, and about the investments that also make sure that we're all better at using that data.