Fixing Government Data Duplication at DataKind Bangalore

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Voters worldwide seldom interact with their chosen leaders- except around 5-yearly elections. However, the advent of advanced Information and Community Technologies (ICT) might shrink this interval considerably. They may even turn back the clock towards the seminal Athenian model of democratic decision-making: directly by the people rather than their representatives. With some political discretion, today’s online forums can allow for similarly incorporating crowdsourced public opinion into policy design. This could contribute to nationally important initiatives (such as preparing Morocco’s 2011 Draft Constitution or debates on Spain’s Plaza Podemos, Brazil’s E-democracia portal and India’s own mygov.in). Nonetheless, we will concern ourselves with far more universal and local problem-solving at the municipal level.

But just who has access to such platforms? While internet penetration in rural India is rising dramatically, the lion’s share (67%) still resides with urban denizens. Moreover, as highlighted by the Wall Street Journal, India boasted of a quarter of the world’s fastest growing urban zones and 8 qualifying ‘MegaCities’ as per India’s 2011 Census definition. The demands on municipal governments are likely to be considerable, and even more likely to be mediated by internet platforms.

Regardless of this explosion of population and the associated challenges, the structure of municipal bodies has remained unchanged since Lord Ripon’s 1882 Resolution on self-government. Furthermore, as Ramesh Ramnathan of Janaagraha points out, the responsibility for action is de facto scattered across acronyms of acrimonious accusing agencies. For example, Bangalore’s (deep breath advised) BDA, BMRDA, BWWSB, BMTC, KSB, BESCOM together juggle the city’s water, transport, electricity, traffic police and development needs. Many authorities, little authority. Increasingly internet-savvy and increasingly increasing residents. Where can they all turn for help?

Enter DataKind Bangalore Partners.

15-year old Janaagraha has endeavoured to improve the quality of urban life- in terms of infrastructure, services and civic engagement- by coordinating government and citizen-led efforts. Of their various initiatives, the IChangeMyCity portal also earned Discover ISIF Asia’s award under the Rights and People’s Choice categories.

Next up, eGovernments Foundation, brainchild of Nandan Nilekani & Srikanth Nadhamuni (Silicon Valley technologist) has since 2003 sought to transform urban governance across 275 Municipalities with the use of scalable and replicable technology solutions (for Financial Accounting, Property & Professional Taxes, Public Works, etc.) Their Public Grievance and Redressal system for the Municipal Corporation of Chennai- recipient of the 2010 Skoch Award -has fielded over 0.22 million complaints over 6 years.

Though these organizations joined hands with DataKind in two distinct ‘Sprints’, the similarities are remarkable. Both their platforms allow citizens to primarily flag problems (garbage, city lighting, potholes) at the neighbourhood level for resolution by government agencies.

Then again, the differences are noteworthy too. As an advocacy-oriented organization, Janaagraha aimed to understand the factors that led to certain complaints being closed promptly by a third party. eGovernments on the other hand, being within the system, to keep officials and engineers adequately prepared for the business-as-usual and also immediately alert them on anomalies. So both sought predictions around complaints- one on their creation, another on their likelihood of closure.

Clearly, quite a campaign lay ahead. If we forget Ancient Greek democracy and hitch a caravan to China, then Sun Tzu’s wisdom from the Art of War pops in: knowing oneself is the key to victory. Always open to relevant philosophy, the DataKinders looked into their own ranks to assess their strengths. The team assigned for E-Governments coincidentally included Ambassadors (Chapter Leader, Vinod Chandrashekhar) and Data Experts (Samarth Bhargav, Sahil Maheshwari) from the Janaagraha project. The teams were also at different junctures joined by the latter’s Vice President (Manu Srivastava) and two of his interns, plus a multidisciplinary mob of volunteers from backgrounds in business consulting, UX Design, data warehousing, development economics and digital ethnography. Let’s see how they waged war.

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Progress to Date

Back in March 2015, IChangeMyCity’s presented a set of 18,533 complaints carrying rich meta-data on Category, Complainant Details, Comments, etc. You’d assume this level of detail opens doors to appetizing analyses. Perhaps. Unfortunately, the information dwelt in a database of 10 different tables. Sahil Maheshwari- then working as a Product Specialist- busied himself with the onerous task of unraveling the relationships between them, drawing up an ER Diagram and ‘flattening’ records into one combined table. The team then accordingly fished out missing or anomalous values.

Conversely, E-Governments users either report their problems online, through SMS, paper forms or by calling into the special ‘1913’ helpline where operators transcribe complainants’ inputs. With digital data being entered through drop-down menus rather than free text (either directly by users or call centre employees), no major missing data was to be found. Except of course, unresolved cases-a mere 8% of the 0.18 million complaints. Some entries, amounting to 0.8% were exactly identical- clearly a technical glitch. Moreover, all data resided in one table. So in November 2015’s DataJam, this structure allowed the team to plunge immediately to exploratory analysis.

Across the 200 wards of Chennai, 93 kinds of complaints (grouped further into 9 categories) could be assigned to departments at either the City or Zone level. Although the numbers initially seemed staggering, Samartha Bhargav ran basic visualizations in the R Programming language. The result? Another instance of Pareto’s rule: 15 of these complaint types were contributing to 82% of grievances. Several DataKind first-timers like Aditya Garg & Venkat Reddy ran similar analyses for the 10 most given-to-grumbling wards, and found trouble emanating from roughly the same top 5 sources. Apparently, malfunctioning street lights blow everyone’s fuse. These common bugbears intriguingly became less bearable (and more numerous) in the second half of the year, while others related to taxes seemed more even across the year.

Even so, how could there be 10 broken lights in an area with only one on record? So had ten people all indicated the same light? Like with data analysis, learning from Chinese classics (literally) involves reading the fine print. Sun Tzu’s actual words: ‘If you know the enemy AND know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.’ Clearly, this enemy was a lot more complicated than the decoy flanks that DataKinders had speared. Tzu and George Lucas may well have hung out over green tea.

Attack of the Clones .

In usual data science settings, duplicates are often easy to identify and provide little intrinsic value. However, the game changes in the world of crowdsourced data. Especiallydata highlighting the criticality of an issue. So to achieve victory, the team would have to understand and strike at its core- dynamic social feedback. We could assess its importance at four levels.

The first involves messages from the platform itself to indicate that a complaint has been registered and no further inputs are necessary. In its absence, citizens could well create duplicates by hitting the Submit button either accidentally (not knowing if their complaint was logged) or deliberately (hoping that repeating the complaint may lead to quicker action). This is more of a concern for web platforms rather than call centres. By matching against columns involving email, phone and postal contact details and date, time and type of the complaint, DataKind had already been able to quickly hurl out these obvious clones.

The second level of feedback is where the Force truly awakens- from other citizens. The ability to see that other fellow residents have experienced the same concern may prevent its repetition. But this rests on two assumptions. First, that they can view already posted complaints, as exists with IChangeMyCity. They may rally behind this shared cause by ‘upvoting’- an indicator to authorities of its increased importance.

Even if this feature does not exist- as with eGovernments- then all is not lost. High priority might still be inferred by large absolute numbers of complaints. But these would provide an idea of the severity of the problem across the ward (45 pot holes in Adyar) rather than one specific instance of it (that life-threatening one before the flyover). Secondly, if peeved citizens do not put in the effort of checking the roster of existing complaints- as inevitably occurred even with IChangeMyCity- then the Upvotes option alone cannot guarantee being Clone-free.

The third and most obvious feedback comes from authorities via the digital platform- to indicate closure. This is provided by both partners, with IChangeMyCity also appending contact details of which official has been assigned the task.

The fourth and final level- is where a citizen can verify that a complaint marked as ‘closed’ has truly been resolved. After all, accountability forms part of the foundation of democracy. In this manner, the same poorly tended-to complaint could be reopened, rather than filing another one out. This feature currently exists only with IChangeMyCity, which not only allows municipal authorities to mark a complaint as ‘closed’ (as exists with eGoverments), but also allows users to reopen them if unsatisfied.

IChangeMyCity’s resolution rates lie close to 50%- a figure probably reached after allowing for this reopening scenario. eGovernments on the other hand closed a commendable 97%, with up to 13% shut on the same day to an outlier of 1043 (almost 3 years), with the majority (56%) in under 3 days. Mr Srivastava emphasized that these efficiency statistics had improved dramatically in the last 2 years. But as we just explored, perhaps a confounding factor is that multiple duplicate complaints are being closed by engineers who have identified their Clone nature.

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How to Fix It?

Thus, it was the second category- unintended duplication- which bled into the fourth. How could the DataKind team exploit the enemies’ own weakness? They decided to unsheathe their two logical light sabers: text and location. Either one in isolation didn’t necessarily pinpoint a duplicate. But in combination, they could quickly incinerate a Clone’s trooper suit.

Saber A: WHERE was the complaint registered? For IChangeMyCity, one can log in, peer through a map of Bangalore and plant a pin on the spot where you’d like to divert the authority’s attention. Using that pin, analysts can procure exact latitude and longitude coordinates. It’s still entirely possible that different people place the pins some distance apart even when referring to the same issue. But it would seem like a safe bet that two closely located complaints might just be Clones.

EGovernments currently doesn’t use maps, but asks users a fairly detailed, 6-level description of addresses (City, Regions, Zones, Wards, Area, Locality, Street). Such text might help direct an engineer gallivanting outdoors, but not for a computer that speaks code. Attempting to translate the text addresses into associated geocodes, the team split the data into 10 parts and ran Google Maps API with an R Script on each one. Despite their best efforts, accuracy could not be guaranteed. Though eGovernments will soon be introducing such coordinates in future work, geocoding seemed like a closed line of attack.

Saber 2: HOW was the complaint registered. The way people express themselves on a particular local issue may vary, but could feature some words in common. However with E-Governments system, pre-loaded tags from the website were automatically attached to complaints. Result? Nearly 40,000 entries demanding ‘NECESSARY ACTION’ (in capitals, no less) with only minor differences. Others exist, but simply restate the category of complaints. (‘Removal of Garbage’). With so little variability and no hidden clues, this strategy failed too.

However, for IChangeMyCity, citizens are free to fill complaint titles and descriptions as they please. So the DataKind Team broke the text of both the complaint’s title and description into sentences and then into words. Then they ran an unsupervised learning algorithm, which helped generate the Jaccard Index- a measure of how ‘close’ two complaints were in terms of statistical similarity.

But to check this ‘distance’ for N complaints against each other would require N*N operations. Far too long for a dataset of this size. To assist with this more abstract sense of ‘distance’, the team decided to turn to the more intuitive geographical meaning of the term. The clearly listed geocode saber we mentioned above.

The team decided that any two complaints within 250m of each other on a map could be considered as potential duplicates, while the rest could be ignored. Plugging these codes into the MongoDB geospatial index, Samarth ingeniously reduced the computation time for this process from 2 hours to 10 minutes. He also later developed a REST API that could be queried to detect the 10 nearest complaints. Going forward, the team hopes to set a threshold of such ‘similarity’ beyond which a new entry could automatically be flagged as a duplicate, much like answered programming queries on Stack Overflow.

 Onward to De-Duplication Success

At first glance, it may seem like the Attack of the Clones had stamped defeat over the eGovernments project, while IChangeMyCity had dodged the bullet. But let’s not jump to conclusions. The importance of this first battle is relative. Since Janaagraha is focused on closure of a single complaint, it makes sense not to muddy waters by repeating the same theory. EGovernments on the other hand is interested in the total number of complaints likely to arise, not the problems. Also, as we’ll soon see in the next installment, the larger numbers of complaints (including duplicates) would prove crucial in helping generate valid forecasts for the Chennai Municipal Corporation.

So at the end of this first DataJam session, what had the team discovered? On a flight that carried along Sun Tzu, 2 mayors, George Lucas and random Athenians in Business Class, we learnt the philosophical complexities of the idea of ‘duplication’, especially in the contexts of crowdsourcing and democratic processes in strained local governments.

Abhishek Pandit is a Strategy Consultant at ChaseFuture

Apply Now for Wireless Innovation Project Awards

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The Wireless Innovation Project from the Vodafone Americas Foundation is designed as a competition to promote innovation and increase implementation of wireless related technology for a better world. Total awards up to $600,000 will be available to support projects of exceptional promise that meet our eligibility criteria.

Types of Projects

The Vodafone Wireless Innovation Project seeks to identify and fund the best innovations using wireless related technology to address critical social issues around the world. Project proposals must demonstrate significant advancement in the field of wireless-related technology applied to social benefit use.

The competition is open to projects from universities and nonprofit organizations based in the United States. Although organizations must be based in the United States, projects may operate and help people outside of the United States.

  • Applicants must demonstrate a multi-disciplinary approach that uses an innovation in wireless-related technology to address a critical global issue in one or more of the following areas:
    1. Social Issue Areas: Access to communication, Education, Economic development, Environment, Health
    2. Technical Issue Areas: Connectivity, Energy, Language or Literacy hurdles, Ease of use
  • The project must be at a stage of research where an advanced prototype or field/market test can occur during the award period.
  • The technology should have the potential for replication and large scale impact.
  • Teams should have a business plan or a basic framework for financial sustainability and rollout.

Winners will be selected for awards of $100,000, $200,000, and $300,000 which will be paid in equal installments over three years.

How to Submit a Proposal

To submit a proposal, Applicants must first successfully complete the Eligibility Questionnaire. Eligible Applicants will then receive the URL for the online application via e-mail and be asked to create a username and password which will enable them to work on their proposal online. The application consists of multiple narrative questions and a project budget spreadsheet that Applicants must complete and submit. All information must be submitted through the on-line application.

Submissions will be accepted from 9:00 a.m. Pacific Time on November 2, 2015 to 11:59 p.m. Pacific Time on February 22, 2016 (the “Entry Period”).

2015: a year in review

2015 has been a busy year of the ISIF Asia program with awards, grants and capacity building activities been supported around the Asia Pacific region. Here is a summary of what we have done in 2015.

ISIF Asia Awards 2015

The Information Society Innovation Fund (ISIF Asia) Awards seek to acknowledge the important contributions ICT innovators have made to their communities, by addressing social and development challenges using the Internet. The Awards recognize projects that have already been implemented, or are in the final stages of implementation, and have been successful in addressing their communities’ needs.

During 2015, 5 awards of AUD 3000 were given to very interesting projects from India, Indonesia and Pakistan covering very relevant issues were Internet technologies make a difference for community development, such as citizens participation to improve public infrastructure in India; bridging fractal algorithms with traditional batik design in Indonesia; supporting female doctors in Pakistan to access the workforce; mapping diseases in rural areas of Pakistan. 5 award winners were selected out of the 78 nominations received from 12 economies across the region.

  1. Innovation on access provision: doctHERs – Pakistan, NAYA JEEVAN / http://www.docthers.com
  2. Code for the common good: Batik Fractal – Indonesia, Piksel Indonesia Company / http://www.batikfractal.com
  3. Innovation on learning and localization: Jaroka Mobile Based Tele-Healthcare – Pakistan, UM Healthcare Trust / http://www.umtrust.org
  4. Rights: I Change My City – India, Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy / http://www.ichangemycity.com
  5. Community Choice Award: I Change My City – India, Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy / http://www.ichangemycity.com

This year was particularly interesting to receive an application from China, for the very first time since the inception of the ISIF Asia program. 31 applications were accepted for the selection process and are publicly available for anyone interested to learn more about the ingenuity and practical approaches that originate from our region. 16 applications were selected as finalists for full review. When the final selection of the 4 award winners was completed, the process was opened for the community to cast their vote to select the Community Choice Award winner, selected with 426 valid votes. Besides the cash prize, the award winners were invited to attend the 10th Internet Governance Forum (Joao Pessoa, Brazil, 10-13 November 2015) were the awards ceremony took place. The full video of the awards proceedings is below:

 

Internet Governance Forum participation

As part of the Seed Alliance support, ISIF Asia led the development of a workshop proposal that was accepted by the MAG for inclusion in the official IGF program. A follow-up of the work conducted during the IGF in Bali and the IGF in Istanbul the workshop No. 219 “Addressing funding challenges for continuous innovation” to understand how funding for Internet innovation operates, how the Internet community respond to those challenges, as well as explore solutions together. In light of the publication of the new Sustainable Development Goals in August 2015, the workshop also explored the link between funding opportunities to achieve Goal #9 “Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation” where 9c set the objective of “Significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020”.  The workshop speakers were Jens Karberg (Sida), Laurent Elder (IDRC), Paul Wilson (APNIC) and Vint Cerf (Google). You can follow the workshop on the video below:

Capacity Building Fund

During 2015, ISIF recipients benefited from additional support through the Capacity building fund to promote the results of their ISIF supported projects at 9 international events that have raised their profile which open doors to negotiate additional support for their projects through a stronger and wider network of contacts, as follows:

  1. 10th Internet Governance Forum. 10-13 November 2015. Joao Pessoa, Brazil
  2. APNIC 40. 3 Sep 2015 to 10 Sep 2015. Jakarta, Indonesia
  3. COHRED Forum 2015. 24 Aug 2015 to 27 Aug 2015. Manila, Philippines
  4. WiSATS 2015. 6 Jul 2015 to 7 Jul 2015. Bradford, United Kingdom
  5. APrIGF 2015. 30 Jun 2015 to 3 Jul 2015. Macau, Macau
  6. RightsCon. 24 May 2015 to 25 May 2015. Manila, Philippines
  7. ICTD 2015. 15 May 2015 to 18 May 2015. Singapore City, Singapore
  8. AVPN 2015 Conference. 20 Apr 2015 to 23 Apr 2015. Singapore City, Singapore
  9. APNIC 39.  24 Feb 2015 to 6 Mar 2015. Fukuoka, Japan

Additionally, a “Mentoring workshop on evaluation and research communications” was provided for 2014 grant recipient Operation ASHA for the project “Linking TB with technology” from 23 Mar 2015 to 26 Mar 2015 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where Sonal Zaveri and Vira Ramelan provided mentoring to Jacqueline Chen and Vin “Charlie” Samnang for the eDetection app project to provide training on U-FE and ResCom concepts, refine key evaluation questions and draft plans for communications strategy.

On top of these face-to-face opportunities, ISIF provided access to the JFDI.Asia pre-accelerator course from August to November 2015, providing 60 accounts for ISIF recipients to join in teams the course. JFDI was founded in Singapore in 2010 by Hugh Mason and Wong Meng Weng. The community has since helped thousands of people in Asia to engineer innovative businesses around their ideas. They can do this because innovation is evolving from an art into a science, and because we have built a community who share their expertise and experience turning ideas into reality. The 60 teams are all ISIF Asia funding winners seeking to accelerate their learning and thereby scale and grow the impact of their ideas.

Site visits

The site visits allowed ISIF Asia to gain a deeper understanding of: 1) the context in which the supported organization operates, partnerships with other organizations and relationships with project beneficiaries; 2) the problematic that the project addressed; 3) the solution proposed; 4) the results that the project achieved and 5) the challenges the organizations face for future development.  The site visits were documenting using photographs, videos, and blog articles. The visits were not only informative about the challenging contexts that these 2 projects operate but were also inspiring, as what can be achieved when talented and highly committed professionals, put their knowledge and effort to good use, for the benefit of disadvantaged communities. During 2015, ISIF Asia visited:

  • iSolutions. Aug 2015. Chuuk, Federated States of Micronesia.
  • Access Health International. Mar 2015. Manila, The Philippines
  • Operation ASHA. Mar 2015 to Mar 2015. Phnom Penh, Cambodia

2014 grants completed!

During 2015, we have seen the completion of most of the 2014 grant recipients. Projects addressed development problems and demonstrated the transformative role the Internet can have in emerging economies. This summary of 2014 grant recipients and their projects are examples of the kind of partnerships that ISIF encourages and supports.

  • The Pacific Islands Chapter of the Internet Society – PICISOC in collaboration with University of Auckland (Pacific Islands) worked to improving Internet Connectivity in Pacific Island countries with network coded TCP with deployments in several islands of the Pacific with very positive and encouraging measurements for future development.
  • The Punjabi University, Patiala (India) completed their project to overcome the barriers that Sindhi Arabic and Devnagri scripts posed for researchers. They have completed the transliteration tables for both scripts and millions of words have being input into the database which is now on their final version.
  • The Cook Islands Internet Action Group (Cook Islands) has released the Maori Database app, website and social media page that has raised attention from the local media and interest from the local government to preserve the language.
  • CoralWatch, The University of Queensland (Australia/Indonesia) finalized their mobile app in Bahasa-Indonesia and English to improve citizen science monitoring of coral reefs in Indonesia
  • The Internet Education and Research Laboratory, Asian Institute of Technology, in collaboration with the Mirror Foundation and the THNIC Foundation (Thailand) deployed Chiang-Rai MeshTV: An Educational Video-on-Demand (E-VoD) System for a Rural Hill-Tribe Village via a Community Wireless Mesh Network (CWMN). The Chiang-Rai community has now a fully operational mesh network that streams educational videos for learning development over a community wireless network, increasing their access to educational content fit for a low literacy context motivating families to support their kids to keep on their learning path.
  • The Institute of Social Informatics and Technological Innovations – ISITI-CoERI. (Malaysia) continued their research in and develop a game to digitalize and preserve Oro, a secret signage language of the nomadic Penans in the rainforest in Malaysia. Their efforts have allowed to document traditional knowledge from the elders and making it relevant for the younger generations.
  • iSolutions (Micronesia) deployed the Chuuk State Solar Server Education Hub, through a scale-up grant, following the deployment of the PISCES project support in 2013 to connect schools to the Internet in Chuuk. The solar server education hub connects schools to educational content and share communications capabilities, lowering the cost by rationalizing the use of their limited broadband connections and using solar energy.
  • Nazdeek, in collaboration with PAHJRA and ICAAD has introduced a different approach on how to improve maternal health in India. They are using SMS technologies liked to online mapping to increase accountability in delivery of maternal health services. Their approach allows Adivasi tea garden workers in Assam to understand their rights and how to claim the benefits they are entitled to.
  • The ECHO app from eHomemakers in Malaysia received an award in 2012 for their work to support workingwomen in Malaysia to communicate and coordinate better when they work from home. In 2014 they received a scale-up grant replicate their experience in support to Homenet in Indonesia.
  • The University of Engineering and Technology and Vietnam National University are working on better systems for monitoring and early warning of landslides in Vietnam.
  • Operation ASHA successes in India, have inspired this scale-up grant to support the deployment of an application to monitor TB in Cambodia and support the work that healthworkers do to contain the spread of the disease and provide adequate follow-up for patients. They developed the eDetection app and improved diagnostics to reduce the spread of TB in Cambodia.
  • BAPSI has completed training and testing the development of Morse code-based applications to provide deaf-blind people with the opportunity to use mobile phones to better communicate with those around them that do not know sign-language.

2015 supported projects are well under way!

The selection for the 2015 grant recipients was also completed and 4 projects have received support. Their progress reports are starting to flow in, and they will reach completion during the first semester of 2016.

  1. Development of mobile phone based telemedicine system with interfaced diagnostic equipment for essential healthcare in rural areas of Low Resource Countries. Department of Biomedical Physics and Technology. University of Dhaka, Bangladesh.
  2. Deployment of a Community based Hybrid Wireless Network Using TV White Space and Wi-Fi Spectrum in Remote Valleys around Manaslu Himalaya. E-Networking Research and Development. Nepal
  3. Improved Carrier Access in Rural Emergencies (ICARE). Innovadors Lab Pvt Ltd and School of Computer and Information Science, IGNOU. India
  4. A Peering Strategy for the Pacific Islands. Network Startup Resource Center and Telco2. Pacific Islands

The Discovery Asia blog

44 new articles have been published this year, to highlight the talent, skills and commitment that the Asia Pacific region has to offer, continues to raise attention to the vibrant community we serve, their needs and their innovative approaches to solve development problems using the Internet for the benefit of their communities. We encourage you to share your stories. It has been a busy year, and we look forward for new challenges during 2016! We look forward to complete 100 articles soon!

Seed Alliance end of a 3 year cycle

The three years grants from IDRC and Sida that made the collaboration with FIRE and FRIDA programs possible has come to a close during the 10th IGF in Brazil, where the Seed Alliance website was launched. The website provides a comprehensive view of the work that IDRC and Sida’s funds have made possible supporting 116 projects from 57 economies. It has allocated around US$ 2.2 million of funding in Grants and Awards throughout Africa, Asia Pacific, and Latin America, helping to strengthen and promote the Information Society within these regions through 102 opportunities for networking, outreach, evaluation and/or capacity building. The website will be officially launched in February 2016, but we invite you all to explore it!

New funding confirmed for project implementation and more grants in 2016! 

After a successful external evaluation process commissioned by IDRC and a new proposal negotiation as part of the Seed Alliance activities, ISIF Asia has received renewed funding commitment from IDRC for 2016 and 2017. A new call for grants will open early in 2016 to which APNIC has renewed its commitment as well. In addition, the Internet Society has decided to increase their funding contribution to ISIF Asia and fund a full grant, more details about this will be shared earlier in 2016.

The selection process for the 2015 round is currently under way, with 60K AUD to contribute towards research in our region. And finally, APNIC has renewed the funding for the Internet Operations Research Grants 2016.

We thank all our partners and sponsors for their renewed support!

An Online Platform Promotes Fair Tourism in Rural Thailand

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Pai Somsak Boonkam was born in the rural village of Roiet, Northeastern Thailand. His parents were poor rice farmers who believed in education. When he was eight, they sent him to an uncle, so he could go to high school. He studied his way through the university and became an engineer.

Lack of Economic Opportunities in Rural Thailand

At 18 years old, he came back to his hometown, but found that all his friends had left the village too. Like in most rural areas of Thailand, there were no job opportunities in Roiet. Many of Boonkam’s friends had moved to the cities hoping for a better life.

Once there, they were faced with many difficulties. It was hard for them to adapt to urban life, and they would only get the low-paying jobs. Meanwhile, with no one to enliven it, the community’s culture was dying.

Boonkam wondered what he could do, but he had no idea. He went on with his own life, took a sabbatical and traveled to India, Laos and Myanmar. He then moved to the US, to pursue an MBA in sustainability. Finally, he came back to Thailand and was hired by the Mae Fah Luang Foundation. His job was to manage a rural homestay project in the Northern part of the country.

This is when he got the idea to use tourism as a development tool.

Tourism in Thailand

Since the 1960s, tourism has been the engine of the Thai economy. It now accounts for 20 percent of the country’s GDP. For years most tourists have been to Bangkok, the Southern beaches and the Islands. But more and more are now striving for an immersive experience of the local life. That’s why many travel agencies offer what they call “sustainability tours.”

For Boonkam, these are just marketing tools and have zero benefit for the locals. Villages on the tourist route have become like “zoos.” One day, while he was working in a village, a bus of tourists arrived. All they did was chase the villagers, to take their pictures, and none bothered to talk to them. Twenty minutes later, they were gone to the next spot…

For the villagers, this was a great annoyance, for which they hardly received anything. Hotel chains and tour operators get 70 percent of the income generated by tourism. Less than 10 percent goes to the communities and hill tribes who still live in poverty. No wonder some are tempted to sell their traditional treasures to the tourists.

Sustainability

Boonkam believes there is another way to travel. He also believes that tourism can sustain the development of the communities. That’s why in 2012, he quit his job to start Local Alike. He was 31 at the time, and his ambition was to make the Thai tourism industry more just. And to do so, he would work with the communities to create authentic tourist activities.

Each tour promoted by Local Alike is designed by the villagers themselves. They decide everything – from the concept to the pricing. Even the guides are local people. Boonkam and his team give some support, making sure that the tourists’ expectations are met.

What’s more, Local Alike connects the local communities with their clients. They promote each project on their website, where the tourists can do their bookings.

A Source of Hope for the Future

In three years, Local Alike has developed tourism projects in 15 communities across Thailand. And everyone is already reaping the benefits!

Travelers can now delve into the local communities’ real life. So far, 1,300 tourists have participated in a tour or an activity. For the communities, it means 20 percent of extra income every year. And more than 2,000 jobs have been created.

Moreover, a dedicated development fund is formed for every participating village. Local Alike gives five percent of its profits and the community gives five percent of its income. The money is then used to finance local projects.

And it’s paid off, like in Suan Pa, north of Thailand. This hill tribe village was the first one to work with Local Alike. It is a hidden gem, yet it had a bad reputation among tourists. The locals would not pay any attention to the waste. Boonkam spent time explaining to them how important cleanliness was for the tourists. Right after, the villagers gathered to clean the whole place and its beautiful surroundings.

Soon, trekkers came back, bringing hope of a brighter future.

DataKind Bangalore: Using Data to Improve Development

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On the eve of the birthday of MK Gandhi- India’s founding father- two very different groups of technologists are buckled up onboard flights to the United States. One surrounds a man who has risen from poverty to the position of the country’s Prime Minister. Soon, their plane begins its descent into the sun-drenched hillsides around Silicon Valley. The second comprises a trio of young middle-class professionals who’ve applied for extended leave from their day jobs to visit New York.

Peering out at the towering skyline from their windows, they dwell on the upcoming Second Annual Summit of the movement that they helped launched globally a year ago. Despite these surface differences, the two groups find their eyes glazing over the same dreams: harnessing the power of technology and internet connectivity to build a better, brighter India.

Who are they? The first-as you must have guessed- is the retinue of Narendra Modi, spearheading his ambition for a Digital India. Less obvious, and the subject of this three-part series- is DataKind Bangalore, and their diverse initiatives for the improved governance and accountability.

DataKind Banga-what? Mouthful alert. So let’s review that- one word at a time.

DataKind is a global nonprofit that unites pro-bono data scientists with social sector organizations to address critical humanitarian problems within a project-based framework. Since its launch in New York City in 2011, DataKind’s volunteers have undertaken a range of exciting initiatives– from scraping website data on Indonesian agricultural prices and Mozambique’s microfinance, to exploring poverty levels through satellite imagery of electric lighting in Bangladesh and roof materials in Uganda, to identifying trends in the needs of the distressed by mining their SMS text in India, the US and the UK.

This breadth of impact and depth of expertise has only been possible through a vibrant worldwide community represented at DataKind’s Chapters in Dublin, San Francisco, Singapore, the UK and Washington DC, and of course, Bangalore.

Yes, Bangalore. The city Indians would like to call the Silicon Valley of the East. And what Silicon Valley itself would like to dislike as the Outsourcing Capital of the world. Except now, Bangalore is ‘insourcing’. DataKind’s local Chapter, founded in 2014 has been harnessing the country’s top tech talent to take on its own greatest challenges.

Within just a year of operations, their tally of volunteers hit a staggering 700. So could India’s bemoaned Brain-Drain be quietly rebounding into a Brain Gain? Perhaps part of the pro-bono participants’ passion pertains to how Bangalore’s is the only Chapter situated in a developing country.

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Of course, all members of DataKind’s international network confront the ‘wicked’ problems that bedevil poverty alleviation. But when you experience this wickedness first-hand, when it’s cackling in your face on a daily basis, you’re far more inclined to land an algorithmic slap on its cheek.

One of the most stinging issues- possibly one that brought Modi into power- was a lack of transparency and accountability and an almost resigned acceptance of corruption and inefficiency.  And as the trio in New York soon realized at DataKind HQ, governance had unintentionally become a Chapter theme of sorts. 4 of all their 6 nonprofit partners thus far had resolved to support public bodies with data-driven decision making, or at least to build societal consensus on the need thereof.

As another interesting insight at the Global Summit, the Bangalore trio noted that even in developed nations like the UK, the supply of well-trained data scientists still fell short of demands from the private and public sectors. What did this portend for India?

In parallel and on the opposite coast, Modi had been pitching to several CEOs to invest in his country’s IT infrastructure. This tied in with the 17-point Digital India vision he announced 3 months ago, which concludes with ‘I dream of an India where every Netizen is an Empowered Citizen’. But as former Microsoft researcher, Kentaro Toyama elaborates in his book ‘The Geek Heresy’– mere provision of internet and mobile technologies, without investing first in human capacity to handle them (and the resulting information deluge) would ring hollow. An empty promise.

Volunteers at DataKind Bangalore have been fortunate to belong to the narrow segment of digital elite equipped with the industry knowledge and cognitive capabilities to leverage these tools. And it turns out that 6 of the 17 points in Modi’s mandate could be linked to issues of Good Governance. So if there is any measure of evaluating just how truly efficacious the ICT4D mandate could prove for India, and particularly in transparency and accountability, DataKind Bangalore and its projects with local NGOs provide an exciting testing ground.

Likewise, this current Chapter theme of Governance will form the focus of this series, though future extensions may explore outstanding DataKind Bangalore projects in other areas such as education, agriculture and microfinance. The remainder of this entry outlines the workings of DataKind’s typical project cycle, and sets the stage for more detailed explorations that will follow in the coming weeks.

Given this backdrop of the non-profit and technologist landscape, how does possessing data lead to any sustainable change? The answer: it doesn’t. Not per se, at least. Then again, DataKind Bangalore isn’t a group of number crunchers alone. Think of it rather, as an innovation and strategy hub. Likewise, its leaders follow a system.

First, a rigorous scoping and outreach process helps determine which organizations hold sufficient management capacity and clearly defined data science problems for the collaboration to prove worthwhile.

Secondly, doors are opened to volunteers from not only the IT industry but a variety of fields including economics, design, journalism, anthropology, and business development. This diversity enriches the ideation process, while also providing many participants with their first on-the-job taste of programming and statistics.

Thirdly, through a defined sequence of community events, the nonprofit’s challenge is hacked and hewed much like Michelangelo sculpting David out of a block of marble. Project Accelerator Nights (evening brainstorming sessions that lead to problem formulation) and DataJams (sessions of data cleaning and exploratory analysis) then culminate in DataDives (weekend hackathons on clearly defined challenges).

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If partners believe that the resulting proposition would boost social impact, a specially selected DataCorps project then fully integrates it into the host organization over a six-month period.

For every David, there’s a Goliath lurking out there somewhere. And the world we inhabit today teems not only with Big, but Giant Data. This isn’t just the statistics computed to furnish in a Non-Profit’s annual reports or the World Bank’s tables, or even decade-end census figures. Neither is it the information gleaned from large-scale randomized controlled trials on policy effectiveness.

Sure, all of that is pretty and polished. But to (grossly) twist a John Legend classic, quantitative analysts today have to learn to love data with it ‘all its curves and edges, all its perfect imperfections’. And this could either pop up mercilessly in real time (through the spread of social media, mobile devices and sensor devices) or turn musty over years in impregnable government PDFs.

So no matter what fancy statistical technique DataKind may have planned, the first step of problem solving remains the same. All available data- whether from partners or scraped off the net- must be tamed and standardized into a format suitable for computers to perform their magic on. Once this foundation is laid, applications of data science to governance could be classified broadly into two use cases. We will explore each with a pair of Datakind Bangalore partners.

The first centres on the executive wing of public administration- specifically interface with citizens at the municipal ward level. Hell hath no fury like a Smartphone owner scorned. Naturally, public officials often feel overwhelmed and understaffed to deal with the volume and variety of their complaints. As a first remedy, duplicates must be cleared, i.e. if many citizens are lodging new entries for the same issue. These must then be allocated to the appropriate authority for resolution.

For example, ISIF 2015 award winner (and coincidentally one of DataKind Bangalore’s inaugural partners), Janaagraha has leveraged its ‘I Change My City’ online platform and mobile app to empower over 2 million Bangalore citizens to lodge over 36,000 complaints on daily hassles such as potholes, garbage left in the open, streetlights, etc (see below).

With some practice on previous years’ data, a computer can soon begin to predict where and when they are likely to emerge, and calculate the probability that they will be resolved. Machine Learning, Mamma Mia! The next entry in this series will explore the mechanics of such an analysis both for the established Janaagraha initiative as well as the newly commenced e-Governments Foundation project in the neighbouring metropolis of Chennai.

The second approach turns to the judiciary and public finances by visualizing data over time or in specific areas. This allows for identifying trends to take action (for public officials themselves) or demand good governance (for citizens and activists). For example, a brief mapping exercise with the Bangalore Police helped them deduce the location of organized gangs (mostly around open public spaces) and then snatch up and enchain some unassuming chain-snatchers. But more importantly, such visualization converts endless and inscrutable reams of data into a clear and visually engaging narrative.  The final installments of this series will compare applications of data cleaning and visualization to two freshly minted DataKind Bangalore partnerships.

First, DAKSH and its Rule of Law project aim to throw light on another category of the overwhelmed government employee- judges at the District, State and National levels. By mapping and quantifying India’s notoriously high case pendency across courts, DAKSH aims to foster informed public debate and develop sustainable solutions.

Second, Centre for Budget and Government Accountability from New Delhi is striving to develop a detailed data Portal on Union and State budgets in India since 2005 and expose any discrepancies between funded allocated and those actually spent. With both partners, DataKind will help discipline and visualize unruly giant data for a simplified user experience that provides not only intelligible insights but impetus for informed action.

So there we have it- common citizens in the world’s largest democracy harnessing internet technologies for improved transparency and accountability.  The world has changed dramatically since back when Gandhi overthrew a colonial regime through the power of a clear national message and transforming the culture of community movements. It remains to be seen whether embedding technology and data-driven decision-making within organizations can help create a similar impact on the dramatically different challenges of the present day.

Two groups who believe in this potential- Prime Minister Modi and DataKind Bangalore- may have now caught the flight back to India to achieve their mission. But now it’s time for you to fasten your seatbelts. Stay tuned as we embark on new adventures with two fascinating methodologies applied to pioneering and passionate partners in the Silicon Valley of the East. No matter how long the seed needs to take root, and whether this experiment fails or succeeds- it’s definitely a journey you don’t want to miss.

Abhishek Pandit is a Strategy Consultant at ChaseFuture

Can ICTs Improve the Indian Rural Health System?

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Despite real progress since 1990, India has not achieved universal health coverage yet.

For instance, the country still has the highest infant death rate in the world. In 2013, 1.3 million children under the age of five died. For many, this was due to preventable causes like birth complications, pneumonia or diarrhea. Tragically, the majority of fatalities occurred in poor rural households.

A shortage of skilled medical staff in rural India

In India, most of the medical facilities are in the cities, where only 27 percent of the population lives. Approximately 716 million people are currently living in rural areas and they only have access to deplorable health centers. Most of the time, they have to travel a long way to get there. When they arrive, nothing assures them that they will find a practitioner to treat them. Rural India is indeed facing a 64 percent shortage of health professionals.

Aware of the situation, successive Indian governments have been working on this issue. In particular, they have hired women as health workers in remote villages. Today, they are the backbone of the public health system in the countryside. However, most of them are semi-literate and have an insufficient basic training.

A lofty young couple to tackle the Indian rural healthcare issue

They took the leap in 2013 and their dream seemed impossible to achieve. After all, Abhinav and Shrutika Girdhar had no healthcare experience. All they had were years of frustration with the rural medical system.

Shrukita grew up in Mumbai, but her grandparents live in a village of 2,000 people. Whenever they get sick, they have no choice but consult the local health workers. They are only two and they have poor medical skills. Often they cannot cure treatable problems, and often times, this leads to the patient’s death.

Such a situation worried Shrukita, so she opened up to her husband. As the son of two doctors and an entrepreneur at heart, Abhinav was willing to take action. Together they agreed they would focus on improving the training of health workers.

That’s how they left their well-paid jobs and started Bodhi Health Education.

An accessible, personalized training program for health workers

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In India, road conditions are usually poor, so it was unrealistic to organize the training sessions in the villages. On the other hand, mobile coverage is good and there are over 900 million cell phone users. Plus, Shrukita being an IT engineer, they opted for an e-learning solution that could easily be delivered through Android-based devices.

That way, they would tackle the challenge of training uneducated people. Most health workers have limited formal education and it is hard for them to learn medical topics. That’s why the Girdhars and their team of medical specialists developed an adapted curriculum. They made sure to explain every concept and procedures using pictures and videos. Additionally, they deliver the lessons in Hindi and India’s regional languages. That way, the learning is simple, interactive, and engaging.

Furthermore, the Bodhi curriculum relies on a personalized educational approach. After a lesson, the learner has to answer practical questions; after a module, she must then take a quiz exam. The results are sent to the trainers who can assess the learning process. It allows them to tailor the program to the health worker’s pace and progress.

Reluctant medical authorities

At first, Shrutika and Abhinav had to overcome resistance to e-learning. The medical authorities were doubtful about using technology to train community health workers. Despite this rebuff, the young entrepreneurs persisted. In less than two years, they developed 100 training modules. The Bodhi curriculum now covers topics like maternal and child care, immunization as well as tuberculosis.

Besides, the Girdhars introduced their program to health workers, who all showed great interest. They found it easy to use and were happy for the opportunity to increase their skills and knowledge. They knew it could help them better treat people, but also earn more money.

In view of these results, the Indian medical authorities agreed to give it a try. Bodhi Health Education could develop partnerships with the government, private hospitals and healthcare companies. These organizations provided tablets, computers and smartphones to upload the Bodhi curriculum. Over 1,000 community health workers could at last access the training.

Towards a better healthcare for the ‘bottom of the pyramid’?

For Shrutika and Abhinav, this is only the beginning. In the next five years, they aim to train more than 60,000 rural health workers. They also want to go international and promote their solution in Asia and Africa.

And of course, they will focus on the regions with the worst health indicators to achieve a major impact!