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Big Data

Book Review: Social Physics: How social networks can make us smarter

Duncan Green's picture Christmas reading included a book called Social Physics – yep, a party animal (my others were Lord of the Flies and Knausgard Vol 3, both wonderful). Here’s the review:

Airport bookstores are bewildering places – shelf after shelf of management gurus offering distilled lessons on leadership, change and everything else. How to distinguish snake oil from substance? My Christmas reading, based on a recommendation from someone attending a book launch in the US last month (thanks whoever you were – all a bit of a blur now) was Alex Pentland’s ‘Social Physics: How Social Networks can make us Smarter’. I must confess, as a lapsed physicist, the title swung it for me, but I learned a lot from this book. At least I think I did – let’s see if I am still using the ideas in a few months’ time.

Social Physics is not a new idea. Auguste Comte, the founder of modern sociology, coined the phrase back in the 19th century. Comte and his crew aspired to explain social reality by developing a set of universal laws—the sociological equivalent of physicists’ quest to create a theory of everything. As with economics, that kind of physics envy has proved largely delusional. Now though, Pentland argues that the arrival of Big Data means we can aspire to a ‘thermodynamics of society’, where behaviour is governed by discernible mathematical laws. It does not deny free will – Pentland does not claim to be able to predict individual behaviour, but finds a high degree of certainty in mass behaviours, which appear to follow particular patterns (like atoms in a gas).

Traveling with ease, carrying disease? Using mobile phone data to reduce malaria: Guest post by Sveta Milusheva

This is the eighth in our series of job market posts this year
The Global Fund has disbursed nearly $28.4 billion in the last decade to reduce the disease burden from malaria, TB and HIV (Global Fund 2016). However, travelers can reverse the progress from campaigns that have decreased infectious disease prevalence (Cohen 2012 et al, Lu et al 2014), or can rapidly spread emerging diseases such as Ebola and Zika (Tam et al 2016, Bogoch et al 2016). While policymakers have largely targeted environmental drivers of malaria, this research provides evidence that human movement can play an important role in spreading disease in areas where incidence has been reduced.  Given that migration has numerous economic and social benefits, policymakers face important trade-offs in designing policies to reduce travel-linked malaria cases.  This paper provides a useful framework for identifying high-risk populations in order to reduce malaria incidence with minimal interference to movement patterns.

Open data, closed algorithms, and the Black Box of Education

Michael Trucano's picture
hey, what's going on in there?
hey, what's going on in there?
Education is a ‘black box’ -- or so a prevailing view among many education policymakers and researchers goes.

For all of the recent explosion in data related to learning -- as a result of standardized tests, etc. -- remarkably little is known at scale about what exactly happens in classrooms around the world, and outside of them, when it comes to learning, and what the impact of this has.

This isn't to say that we know nothing, of course:

The World Bank (to cite an example from within my own institution) has been using standardized classroom observation techniques to help document what is happening in many classrooms around the world (see, for example, reports based on modified Stallings Method classroom observations across Latin America which seek to identify how much time is actually spent on instruction during school hours; in many cases, the resulting data generated are rather appalling).

Common sense holds various tenets dear when it comes to education, and to learning; many educators profess to know intuitively what works, based on their individual (and hard won) experience, even in the absence of rigorously gathered, statistically significant 'hard' data; the impact of various socioeconomic factors is increasingly acknowledged (even if many policymakers remain impervious to them); and cognitive neuroscience is providing many interesting insights.

But in many important ways, education policymaking and processes of teaching and learning are constrained by the fact that we don't have sufficient, useful, actionable data about what is actually happening with learners at a large scale across an education system -- and what impact this might have. Without data, as Andreas Schleicher likes to say, you are just another person with an opinion. (Of course, with data you might be a person with an ill-considered or poorly argued opinion, but that’s another issue.)
side observation: Echoing many teachers (but, in contrast to teaching professionals, usually with little or no formal teaching experience themselves), I find that many parents and politicians also profess to know intuitively ‘what works’ when it comes to teaching. When it comes to education, most everyone is an ‘expert’, because, well, after all, everyone was at one time a student. While not seeking to denigrate the ‘wisdom of the crowd’, or downplay the value of common sense, I do find it interesting that many leaders profess to have ready prescriptions at hand for what ‘ails education’ in ways that differ markedly from the ways in which they approach making decisions when it comes to healthcare policy, for example, or finance – even though they themselves have also been patients and make spending decisions in their daily lives.

One of the great attractions of educational technologies for many people is their potential to help open up and peer inside this so-called black box. For example:
  • When teachers talk in front of a class, there are only imperfect records of what transpired (teacher and student notes, memories of participants, what's left on the blackboard -- until that's erased). When lectures are recorded, on the other hand, there is a data trail that can be examined and potentially mined for related insights.
  • When students are asked to read in their paper textbook, there is no record of whether the book was actually opened, let along whether or not to the correct page, how long a page was viewed, etc. Not so when using e-readers or reading on the web.
  • Facts, figures and questions scribbled on the blackboard disappear once the class bell rings; when this information is entered into, say,  Blackboard TM (or any other digital learning management system, for that matter), they can potentially live on forever. 
And because these data are, at their essence, just a collection of ones and zeroes, it is easy to share them quickly and widely using the various connected technology devices we increasingly have at our disposal.
A few years ago I worked on a large project where a government was planning to introduce lots of new technologies into classrooms across its education system. Policymakers were not primarily seeking to do this in order to ‘transform teaching and learning’ (although of course the project was marketed this way), but rather so that they could better understand what was actually happening in classrooms. If students were scoring poorly on their national end-of-year assessments, policymakers were wondering: Is this because the quality of instruction was insufficient? Because the learning materials used were inadequate? Or might it be because the teachers never got to that part of the syllabus, and so students were being assessed on things they hadn’t been taught? If technology use was mandated, at least they might get some sense about what material was being covered in schools – and what wasn’t. Or so the thinking went ....

Yes, such digital trails are admittedly incomplete, and can obscure as much as they illuminate, especially if the limitations of such data are poorly understood and data are investigated and analyzed incompletely, poorly, or with bias (or malicious intent). They also carry with them all sorts of very important and thorny considerations related to privacy, security, intellectual property and many other issues.

That said, used well, the addition of additional data points holds out the tantalizing promise of potentially new and/or deeper insights than has been currently possible within 'analogue' classrooms.

But there is another 'black box of education' worth considering.

In many countries, there have been serious and expansive efforts underway to compel governments make available more ‘open data’ about what is happening in their societies, and to utilize more ‘open educational resources’ for learning – including in schools. Many international donor and aid agencies support related efforts in key ways. The World Bank is a big promoter of many of these so-called ‘open data’ initiatives, for example. UNESCO has long been a big proponent of ‘open education resources’ (OERs). To some degree, pretty much all international donor agencies are involved in such activities in some way.

There is no doubt that increased ‘openness’ of various sorts can help make many processes and decisions in the education sector more transparent, as well as have other benefits (by allowing the re-use and ‘re-mixing’ of OERs, teachers and students can themselves help create new teaching and learning materials; civil society groups and private firms can utilize open data to help build new products and services; etc.).

That said:
  • What happens when governments promote the use of open education data and open education resources but, at the same time, refuse to make openly available the algorithms (formulas) that are utilized to draw insights from, and make key decisions based on, these open data and resources?
  • Are we in danger of opening up one black box, only to place another, more inscrutable back box inside of it?

The data revolution continues with the latest World Bank Innovation challenge

Marianne Fay's picture

On September 22, 2016, we launched the World Bank Big Data Innovation Challenge – a global call for big data solutions for climate resilience and sustainable development.

As the world grows more connected--through mobile phones, social media, internet, satellites, ground sensors and machines—governments and economies need better ways to harness these data flows for insights toward targeted policies and actions that boost climate resilience, especially amongst the most vulnerable. To make this data more useful for development, we need more data innovations and innovative public-private arrangements for data collaboration.

The World Bank Big Data Innovation Challenge invites innovators across the world to reimagine climate resilience through big data solutions that address the nexus areas of food security and nutrition, and forests and watersheds – high priority areas of the World Bank’s Climate and Forest Action Plans and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Big data innovation – moving from ideas to implementation

Trevor Monroe's picture

If you want to do something fast, do something that has already been done. If you want to hardwire a data innovation into World Bank Operations, be prepared to involve others in a process of learning by doing.  – Holly Krambeck, Senior Transport Specialist, WBG

As the world grows more connected, data flows from a multitude of sources. Mobile networks, social media, satellites, grounds sensors, and machine-to-machine transactions are being used along with traditional data--like household surveys--to improve insights and actions toward global goals.
At the World Bank, a cadre of pioneering economists and sector specialists are putting big data in action. Big data sources are being harnessed to lead innovations like:

  • satellites to track rural electrification, to monitor crop yields and to predict poverty;
  • taxi GPS data to monitor traffic flows and congestion
  • mobile phone data for insights into human mobility and behavior, as well as infrastructure and socio-economic conditions 

Weekly wire: The global forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

World of NewsThese are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

Views on National Economies Mixed as Many Countries Continue to Struggle
Pew Research Center

Almost a decade after the global financial crisis rattled national economies, many in the world feel their respective countries’ economies remain weak. A new Pew Research Center survey reveals a bleak picture in parts of Europe, with more than eight-in-ten in Greece, France and Spain describing their country’s economic situation as bad. This gloom is not shared by all in the European Union, however – most Swedes, Germans and Dutch say their economy is doing well. And in China, India and Australia, views are mostly positive. Just three of the 12 nations for which trends are available have seen an increase of public confidence in their national economy in the past year. This mirrors the International Monetary Fund’s projection that 2016’s global growth will be modest and fragile.

Predicting The Break: How Nations Can Get Ahead Of The Next Refugee Crisis

Europe's leaders were so caught off guard by the refugee crisis when it first erupted in 2014 that the German city of Cologne—overwhelmed by the number of asylum-seekers that November—bought a luxury tourist hotel for $7 million to house some of them. It would only get worse. The whole of Europe, in fact, was shell-shocked (and who wouldn't be at the sight of Aylan Kurdi?). The big question now, for governments, migrations researchers, and analysts, is: Can we do better next time?

Weekly wire: The global forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

World of NewsThese are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

Africa is moving toward a massive and important free trade agreement
Washington Post

African heads of state and government officials are meeting this week in Kigali, Rwanda, for the 27th African Union Summit. On their agenda will be taking the next steps to establish a free-trade area that would include all 54 African countries — which could be up and running by the end of 2017. This is news to much of the global community. Here are seven things you need to know about Africa’s Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA):

Mobile Phone Data Reveals Literacy Rates in Developing Countries
MIT Technology Review

One of the millennium development goals of the United Nations is to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030. That’s a complex task, since poverty has many contributing factors. But one of the more significant is the 750 million people around the world who are unable to read and write, two-thirds of which are women. There are plenty of organizations that can help, provided they know where to place their resources. So identifying areas where literacy rates are low is an important challenge. The usual method is to carry out household surveys. But this is time-consuming and expensive work, and difficult to repeat on a regular basis. And in any case, data from the developing world is often out of date before it can be used effectively. So a faster, cheaper way of mapping literacy rates would be hugely welcome.

Weekly wire: The global forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

World of NewsThese are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

The IMF Confronts Its N-Word
Foreign Policy

The research department of the International Monetary Fund dropped a political bombshell last month. The furor was set off by the publication of an article — “Neoliberalism: Oversold?” — that sparked a near-panic among advocates of free market policies and celebrations among their critics. The piece concluded that, over the past 30 years, the proponents of the economic philosophy known as “neoliberalism” have been systematically overselling the benefits of the two planks at its heart — namely, fiscal austerity during economic slowdowns and the deregulation of financial markets.

Bridging data gaps for policymaking: crowdsourcing and big data for development
DevPolicy Blog

Good data to inform policymaking, particularly in developing countries, is often scarce. The problem is in part due to supply issues – high costs, insufficient time, and low capacity – but also due to lack of demand: policies are rarely shown to be abject failures when there is no data to evaluate them. The wonderful phrase “policy-based evidence making” (the converse of “evidenced-based policy making”) comes to mind when thinking about the latter. However, technological innovations are helping to bridge some of the data gaps. What are the innovations in data collection and what are the trade-offs being made when using them to inform policy?

Making procurement smarter: Lessons from the Amazon

Laura De Castro Zoratto's picture
 In the Amazon region of Brazil, near Manaus. Brazil. Photo: © Julio Pantoja / World Bank

When the word “Amazonas” is mentioned, what do you think of? Mythical rainforests and winding rivers?  The “lungs of the world”? A center of procurement excellence in the Brazilian federation?

Attention governments: Big Data is a game changer for businesses

Alla Morrison's picture

When I speak about big data with government leaders in our client countries around the world, I often find that many have some awareness of big data, but for many, that's where the story ends. Most are not sure how it is going to affect them or what they should do. Most leaders are largely unaware that the impact of big data is likely to be broad and deep. What governments do (or fail to do) will likely shape up the competitiveness of their countries' businesses for the next generation.  

In countries further along on its adoption curve, big data has already started to transform not only the information technology sector but almost every business in every industry. Incorporation of big data today is analogous in many ways to the transformative effect of electricity on industries in the 19th century. While electricity production and distribution became an industry in itself, it also led businesses in all sectors to redesign their processes to take advantage of this new resource, leading to unprecedented productivity gains of the Second Industrial Revolution. It isn't surprising therefore that at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, there was much talk about the global economy being on a brink of a Fourth Industrial Revolution, fueled by big data enabled innovations. Governments in emerging economies cannot afford to be left out of this conversation. 

In this blog I hope to show how big data, as a new resource – one that is abundant and rapidly growing – is transforming the business environment and changing the way companies compete with each other. I will also offer suggestions for actions and policies that governments can initiate to position their economies for the advent of the so-called Big Data Revolution, and show that if they don't, they risk losing market share to more digital data-savvy competitors. Finally, I will share a new tool: Open Data for Business (OD4B) Assessment and Engagement Tool, that the World Bank has launched to help governments lay the foundation for the use of one type of big data – open government data – by the private sector.