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A Computer Can Do Your International Development Job Thanks to Open Data

By Wayan Vota on February 27, 2013


At a recent Technology Salon on “How Can We Make Data Useful for Development,” one of the participants put forth an interesting question to the group:

Could computers make better international development decisions than humans?

Now at first, those present laughed off this question. It borders on fantasy to think a computer could take in the many social and cultural histories, divine the subtleties of donors and the parliaments behind them, and introduce innovations that have long-term impact on notoriously unpredictable humans. Or that’s what we thought until someone brought up the impact of computer algorithms on stock market activity.

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Stock Market Algorithms

Back in the day, when you placed an order to buy or sell a stock, the trade when through floor traders at the New York Stock Exchange. Then, computerization of trades began in the early 1970s, and by 2009, high frequency trading, where computers initiate orders automatically based on algorithms, accounted for as much as 70% of all US equity trading volume. Man had been replaced by machine.

Even more, machine was better than man. The New York Times reports that high frequency trading routinely beats human-driven retain investors by $5 per trade, and added up to over $45,000 per month in profits, per trader.

The Role of Data

All those high frequency trading algorithms are made possible by the reams of data available on stock prices going back decades. Add in data that could influence stock markets, like bond, currency and other financial markets, and weather, agricultural, and industrial data, and there is a sea of numbers to analyze and thousands of stocks to use that data on.

With the exponential increase in data sets generated by new and cheaper sensors and the open data movement releasing that data into the wild where others can analyze it, new industries can start to utilize data to create their own versions of high frequency trading. We see the first step in this direction for the contractor community in DC with the launch of GovTribe.

Data Driven Development

Now let’s bring this home to international development. What do you think is the best indicator of height in Africa and India, where height is a proxy for early childhood health (good nutrition, low disease, etc)? Would you have ever thought that it was the level of open defecation in your community? Thanks to data, we know:

Child height is even more strongly associated with the average number of people per square kilometer in a country who practice open defecation. The density of open defecation per square kilometer… can account for 64% of international variation in child height.

And if we let computers find and act on this data set, our solution to stunting would not be to focus on food security to alleviate malnutrition, but on sanitation and sewer systems to reduce open defecation. And yet, what does the majority of childhood health funding support?

Data Beats Humans on Humans

Now some will still say that big data does fine at the policy level, but it could never understand the uniqueness of humans at the individual level. Many will hold up the gold standard of medical care, a primary care doctor working one-on-one with patients, as better than any cold-hearted computer. And they would be wrong.

Indiana University researchers found that they could reduce medical costs by 50% and increase patient outcomes by 40% if a computer chose the treatment via predictive modeling techniques vs. a doctor acting alone.

Your Days are Numbered

Think your job is safe because you do in-person capacity building? Talk to university professions in the age of MOOC. Believe nursing is safe because only humans can help humans heal? This is the future. And do you rely on taxi drivers to help you navigate a new city? Better speak code.

I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords. That’s why I now work at Development Gateway, where Open Data is the future.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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3 Comments to “A Computer Can Do Your International Development Job Thanks to Open Data”

  1. Stephen says:

    Correlation does not imply causation.

    Many of the countries where open defecation is common also have high rates of malnutrition, high corruption, low development, and many other correlations that are likely more explanatory.


  2. Sara Farmer says:

    Well actually… I’d rephrase that to say a computer plus humans can do a better international development job than just a computer or just humans. I’m betting that many of the results above were generated by data scientists analysing the data – sure, they were probably using statistics and algorithms to find correlations (and posit causations) between variables, but there’s still a lot of art in choosing which variables to concentrate on, what other data to include, how to best present it to decision makers etc etc.

    The analogy to the stock market still holds though: there is also art in the work that quants (Quantitive Analysts) do to create and tweak trading algorithms (it’s not all Black-Scholes and modified GARCH, y’know). And as we develop our own algorithms, we also need to worry about the same long tails, chaotic boundaries, sentiment-led behaviour and context changes that they do.

    In short, it’s okay – we still need the humans (and any computer overload who thinks differently will quickly discover they have a power switch…)

  3. Ian says:

    I’d agree with Sara here that people plus computers is better than either people or computers alone. In addition I’d say that it is networks of people connected by computers that is key. The idea of “distributed cognition” to solve problems in better ways than individuals or traditional teams can.

    This idea and the image you used to illustrate it reminds me of something I wrote last year about “the technological singularity” and whether it is likely to happen and if we should be afraid. My take was that it is already here (and has been for a while) but that it’s the combination of people and technology that is key http://kmonadollaraday.wordpress.com/2012/04/27/dont-fear-the-singularity-its-already-here/
    It’s not that people will become superfluous but that they way we will work in the future (even in the aid business) will probably be very different from the way it is today.