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Big Data can help save the world

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Statistics and analysis may sound dull but now big data is being roped into saving lives in the humanitarian hellholes of the world, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Once, it was a national park. Now, a vast area of Bangladesh has been turned into a sprawling refugee camp. Hundred of thousands of Rohingya people have poured across the border from Myanmar in recent months, forced out of their homes by a brutal army crackdown.

The vicious persecution aims at eradicating a Muslim presence from the primarily Buddhist country of Myanmar. Thousands have been killed for no other reason than being part of a community. Aside from the Rohingya themselves, the brunt of the anguish has been borne by Bangladesh, which has welcomed the refugees into a country that can barely cope with its own problems.

Aid workers have poured in from around the world to help. But that has sometimes only added to the confusion.

“How do you deal with an emergency in the chaos of a million people milling around?” asked Leonard Doyle, head of media and communications for the United Nations Migration Agency. “International and local agencies go piling in, installing tube wells next to water points that are contaminated. That’s not smart.

“Our role is to coordinate the response, which is a massive a challenge given that everyone is doing what they want. We have feedback channels and information points to help coordinate such disasters, but when information is collected out in the field where there is no Internet connectivity, and only submitted a few days later, it does not have the immediacy or urgency that is needed.”

The Agency finally turned to big data – the science of collecting and analysing large amounts of data, and using it for better decision-making. It developed an online platform to receive the information, as well as a software tool people could carry on their phones to collect and submit information.

“It’s a very simple app that allows people to log information and upload it to a response team, and view it on a mini-dashboard with quick statistics of all the feedback collected. It is easy to synchronise with a community response map, and data can be exported from platform and shared with other agencies via PDF and Excel, live data and infographics.

“It’s a very simple tool to collect information for every actor in the field. Now, information coming from these desperate people gets quickly fed into system. So, for example, if someone finds a boy who has lost his parents, and inputs that information, it creates a response procedure that ensures the boy us looked after immediately. We need better ways of getting aid to people, and this is one way.”

Doyle was speaking at the SAS Analytics Experience 2017 conference in Amsterdam, an event that draws both on 40 years of pioneering data science at the SAS Institute and on some of the most current case studies and strategies for turning data into decisions. Addressing humanitarian crises and human problems was a strong theme at the conference.

“The human being and mathematics are merging,” said Jon Briggs, the BBC broadcaster who also happens to be the British male voice of the iPhone voice assistant, Siri. Chairing the conference, he issued a powerful warning:  “The danger in relying purely on statistics is that it can have the effect of dehumanising what is often a very human tragedy.”

However, he pointed out that the work of the UN Migration Agency showed how data could save lives on global migratory routes. Also known as the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the body is currently dealing with 65-million displaced persons, 21-million refugees, and 41-million people displaced in their own countries. Almost a third of this latter group is in Africa. In one month in the DRC alone, 1.5-million people were displaced.

“These folks are the wretched of the earth,” said Doyle. “Already the human traffickers, sex exploiters, human slavers, are there. The vultures are circling. As these people become exploited and enslaved, there is an enormous danger of radicalisation. Yet, much of the suffering is unnecessary.

“These man made disasters may feel distant on our TV screens, but they have a habit of coming close to us. You have in your hands and brains and pockets many of the tools that could enormously help in dealing with the humanitarian issue.”

The message was reiterated by a member of the Dutch royal family, Pieter-Christiaan Michiel, Prince of Orange-Nassau, van Vollenhoven, who is also vice chairman of the board of the Dutch Red Cross.

“I believe big data can make the world better, more humanitarian and smarter,” he declared.

That was the thinking behind the creation by the Dutch Red Cross of a data unit called 510 Global, named for the 510-million square kilometres that make up the surface of the earth.

It is described as a “dedicated hybrid team of data scientists and information managers and researchers who apply their skills across humanitarian activities with Big Data”.

“From visualising and communicating information through interactive dashboards, maps and infographics, our team collects, collates and analyses big data, extracting insights and translating them into data-driven decisions, positively impacting humanitarian aid,” the organisaton says.

Prince Pieter-Christiaan presented a case study that is still raw in the memories of the Dutch: the devastation of the Netherlands territory of Sint Maarten in the Caribbean by last month’s Hurricane Irma. More than 7 out of 10 buildings were damaged or destroyed. The relief operations were a nightmare for aid organisations, the military and government.

The 510 Global team was tasked with both preparing data before the hurricane hit, and assessing the damage afterwards.

“We worked with Google, which was able to predict the path of hurricane, and first responders were able to share information via Google Maps. We knew the hurricane would hit the island, but we wanted to create an accurate picture of where people lived and map the houses on islands.

“We used satellite data to count houses and see where the roads are to reach them. A lot of illegal immigrants were living and working on the island, living in makeshift buildings. We used crowdsourcing to find how many unregistered buildings there were, and that map was used for the rescue operation.

“We used drones for damage assessment, and volunteers used satellite data to map and colour code the most devastated areas, to focus relief operations. We also used that for the recovery, to see how many roofs were needed for makeshift buildings.”

That still left aid workers scrambling for resources on the ground, but it helped divert these to where they were needed most.

The prince pointed out that the Dutch Red Cross was 150 years old, but was now spearheading the concept of smart aid. However, this was no luxury.

“We have a $25-billion budget, but a $35-billion need. There’s a big gap. We are always short of money. Smart aid pinpoints our smart responders, allowing them to be much more effective by seeing where the relief effort is needed most.”

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube.

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Online retail gets real

After decades of experience in selling online, retailers still seek out the secret of reaching the digital consumer, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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It’s been 23 years since the first pizza and the first bunch of flowers was sold online. One would think, after all this time, that retailers would know exactly what works, and exactly how the digital consumer thinks.

Yet, in shopping-mad South Africa, only 4% of adults regularly shop online. One could blame high data costs, low levels of tech-savviness, or lack of trust. However, that doesn’t explain why a population where more than a quarter of people have a debit or credit card and almost 40% of people use the Internet is staying away.

The new Online Retail in South Africa 2019 study, conducted by World Wide Worx with the support of Visa and Platinum Seed, reveals that growth is in fact healthy, but is still coming off a low base. This year, the total sale of retail products online is expected to pass the R14-billion mark, making up 1.4% of total retail.

This figure represents 25% growth over 2017, and comes after the same rate of growth was seen in 2017. At this rate, it is clear that online retail is going mainstream, driven by aggressive marketing, and new shopping channels like mobile shopping. 

But it is equally clear that not all retailers are getting it right. According to the study, the unwillingness of business to reinvest revenue in developing their online presence is one of the main barriers to long-term success. Only one in five companies surveyed invested more than 20% of their online turnover back into their online store. Over half invested less than 10% back.

On the surface, the industry looks healthy, as a surprisingly high 71% of online retailers surveyed say they are profitable. But this brings to mind the early days of Amazon.com, in 1996, when founder Jeff Bezos was asked when it would become profitable.

He declared that it would not be profitable for at least another five years. And if it did, he said, it would be in big trouble. He meant that it was so important for long-term sustainability that Amazon reinvest all its revenues in customer systems, that it could not afford to look for short-term profits.

According to the South African study, the single most critical factor in the success of online retail activities is customer service. A vast majority, 98% of respondents, regarded it as important. This positions customer service as the very heart of online retail. For Amazon, investment back into systems that would streamline customer service became the key to the world’s digital wallets.

In South Africa online still make up a small proportion of overall retail, but for the first time we see the promise of a broader range of businesses in terms of category, size, turnover and employee numbers. This is a sign that our local market is beginning to mature. 

Clothing and apparel is the fastest growing sector, but is also the sector with the highest turnover of businesses. It illustrates the dangers of a low barrier to entry: the survival rate of online stores in this sector is probably directly opposite to the ease of setting up an online apparel store.

A fast-growing category that was fairly low on the agenda in the past, alcohol, tobacco and vaping, has benefited from the increased online supply of vapes, juices and accessories. It also suggests that smoking bans, and the change in the legal status of marijuana during the survey, may have boosted demand. 

In the coming weeks, we can expect online retail to fall under the spotlight as never before. Black Friday, a shopping tradition imported “wholesale” from the United States, is expected to become the biggest online shopping day of the year in South Africa, as it is in the USA.

Initially, it was just a gimmick in South Africa, attempting to cash in on what was a purely American tradition of insane sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, which occurs on the third Thursday of November every year. It is followed by Cyber Monday, making the entire weekend one of major promotions and great bargains.

It has grown every year in South Africa since its first introduction about six years ago, and last year it broke into the mainstream, with numerous high profile retailers embracing it, and many consumers experiencing it for the first time. 

It is now positioned as the prime bargain day of the year for consumers, and many wait in anticipation for it, as they do in the USA. Along with Cyber Monday, it provides an excuse for retailers to go all out in their marketing, and for consumers to storm the display shelves or web pages. South African shoppers, clearly, are easily enticed by bargains.

Word of mouth around Black Friday has also grown massively in the past two years, driven by both media and shoppers who have found ridiculous bargains. As news spreads that the most ridiculous of the bargains are to be had online, even those who were reticent of digital shopping will be tempted to convert.

The Online Retail in SA 2019 report has shown over the years that, as people become more experienced in using the Internet, their propensity to shop online increases. This is part of the World Wide Worx model known as the Digital Participation Curve. The key missing factor in the Curve is that most retailers do not know how to convert that propensity into actual online shopping behaviour. Black Friday will be one of the keys to conversion.

Carry on reading to find out about the online retailers of the year.

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Reliable satellite Internet?

MzansiSat, a satellite-Internet business, aims to beam Internet connections to places in South Africa which don’t have access to cabled and mobile network infrastructure, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Stellenbosch-based MzansiSat promises to provide cheap wholesale Internet to Internet Service Providers for as little as R25 per Gigabyte. Providers who offer more expensive Internet services could benefit greatly from partnering with MzansiSat, says the company. 

“Using MzansiSat, we hope that we can carry over cost-savings benefits to the consumer,” says Victor Stephanopoli, MzansiSat chief operating officer.

The company, which has been spun off from StellSat, has been looking to increase its investor portfolio while it waits for spectrum approval. The additional investment will allow MzansiSat’s satellite to operate in more regions across Africa.

The MzansiSat satellite is being built by Thales Alenia Space, a French company which is also acting as technical partner to MzansiSat. In addition to building the satellite, Thales Alenia Space will also be assisting MzansiSat in coordinating the launch. The company intends to launch the satellite into the 56°E orbital slot in a geostationary orbit, which enables communication almost anywhere in Africa. The launch is expected to happen in 2022. 

The satellite will have 76 transponders, 48 of which will be Ku-band and 28 C-band. Ku-band is all about high-speed performance, while C-band deals with weather-resistance. The design intention is for customers of MzansiSat to choose between very cheap, reliable data and very fast, power-efficient data. 

C-band is an older technology, which makes bandwidth cheaper and almost never affected by rain but requires bigger dishes and slower bandwidth compared to Ku-band connections. On the other hand, Ku-band is faster, experiences less microwave interference, and requires less power to run – but is less reliable with bad weather conditions.

MzansiSat’s potential military applications are significant, due to the nature of the military being mobile and possibly in remote areas without connectivity.  Connectivity everywhere would be potentially be life-saving.

Consumers in remote areas will benefit, even though satellite is higher in latency than fibre and LTE connections. While this level of latency is high (a fifth of a second in theory), satellite connections are still adequate for browsing the Internet and watching online content. 

The Internet of Things (IoT) may see the benefits of satellite Internet before consumers do. The applications of IoT in agriculture are vast, from hydration sensors to soil nutrient testers, and can be realised with an Internet connection which is available in a remote area.

Stephanopoli says that e-learning in remote areas can also benefit from MzansiSat’s presence, as many school resources are becoming readily available online. 

“Through our network, the learning experience can be beamed into classrooms across the country to substitute or complement local resources within the South African schooling system.”

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