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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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Money talks and electronic gaming evolves

Computer gaming has evolved dramatically in the last two years, as it follows the money, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK in the second of a two-part series.

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The clue that gaming has become big business in South Africa was delivered by a non-gaming brand. When Comic Con, an American popular culture convention that has become a mecca for comics enthusiasts, was hosted in South Arica for the first time last month, it used gaming as the major drawcard. More than 45 000 people attended.

The event and its attendance was expected to be a major dampener for the annual rAge gaming expo, which took place just weeks later. Instead, rAge saw only a marginal fall in visitor numbers. No less than 34 000 people descended on the Ticketpro Dome for the chaos of cosplay, LAN gaming, virtual reality, board gaming and new video games. 

It proved not only that there was room for more than one major gaming event, but also that a massive market exists for the sector in South Africa. And with a large market, one also found numerous gaming niches that either emerged afresh or will keep going over the years. One of these, LAN (for Local Area Network) gaming, which sees hordes of players camping out at the venue for three days to play each other on elaborate computer rigs, was back as strong as ever at rAge.

MWeb provided an 8Gbps line to the expo, to connect all these gamers, and recorded 120TB in downloads and 15Tb in uploads – a total that would have used up the entire country’s bandwidth a few years ago.

“LANs are supposed to be a thing of the past, yet we buck the trend each year,” says Michael James, senior project manager and owner of rAge. “It is more of a spectacle than a simple LAN, so I can understand.”

New phenomena, often associated with the flavour of the moment, also emerge every year.

“Fortnite is a good example this year of how we evolve,” says James. “It’s a crazy huge phenomenon and nobody was servicing the demand from a tournament point of view. So rAge and Xbox created a casual LAN tournament that anyone could enter and win a prize. I think the top 10 people got something each round.”

Read on to see how esports is starting to make an impact in gaming.

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Blockchain unpacked

Blockchain is generally associated with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but these are just the tip of the iceberg, says ESET Southern Africa.

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This technology was originally conceived in 1991, when Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta described their first work on a chain of cryptographically secured blocks, but only gained notoriety in 2008, when it became popular with the arrival of Bitcoin. It is currently gaining demand in other commercial applications and its annual growth is expected to reach 51% by 2022 in numerous markets, such as those of financial institutions and the Internet of Things (IoT), according to MarketWatch.

What is blockchain?

A blockchain is a unique, consensual record that is distributed over multiple network nodes. In the case of cryptocurrencies, think of it as the accounting ledger where each transaction is recorded.

A blockchain transaction is complex and can be difficult to understand if you delve into the inner details of how it works, but the basic idea is simple to follow.

Each block stores:

–           A number of valid records or transactions.
–           Information referring to that block.
–           A link to the previous block and next block through the hash of each block—a unique code that can be thought of as the block’s fingerprint.

Accordingly, each block has a specific and immovable place within the chain, since each block contains information from the hash of the previous block. The entire chain is stored in each network node that makes up the blockchain, so an exact copy of the chain is stored in all network participants.

As new records are created, they are first verified and validated by the network nodes and then added to a new block that is linked to the chain.

How is blockchain so secure?

Being a distributed technology in which each network node stores an exact copy of the chain, the availability of the information is guaranteed at all times. So if an attacker wanted to cause a denial-of-service attack, they would have to annul all network nodes since it only takes one node to be operative for the information to be available.

Besides that, since each record is consensual, and all nodes contain the same information, it is almost impossible to alter it, ensuring its integrity. If an attacker wanted to modify the information in a blockchain, they would have to modify the entire chain in at least 51% of the nodes.

In blockchain, data is distributed across all network nodes. With no central node, all participate equally, storing, and validating all information. It is a very powerful tool for transmitting and storing information in a reliable way; a decentralised model in which the information belongs to us, since we do not need a company to provide the service.

What else can blockchain be used for?

Essentially, blockchain can be used to store any type of information that must be kept intact and remain available in a secure, decentralised and cheaper way than through intermediaries. Moreover, since the information stored is encrypted, its confidentiality can be guaranteed, as only those who have the encryption key can access it.

Use of blockchain in healthcare

Health records could be consolidated and stored in blockchain, for instance. This would mean that the medical history of each patient would be safe and, at the same time, available to each doctor authorised, regardless of the health centre where the patient was treated. Even the pharmaceutical industry could use this technology to verify medicines and prevent counterfeiting.

Use of blockchain for documents

Blockchain would also be very useful for managing digital assets and documentation. Up to now, the problem with digital is that everything is easy to copy, but Blockchain allows you to record purchases, deeds, documents, or any other type of online asset without them being falsified.

Other blockchain uses

This technology could also revolutionise the Internet of Things  (IoT) market where the challenge lies in the millions of devices connected to the internet that must be managed by the supplier companies. In a few years’ time, the centralised model won’t be able to support so many devices, not to mention the fact that many of these are not secure enough. With blockchain, devices can communicate through the network directly, safely, and reliably with no need for intermediaries.

Blockchain allows you to verify, validate, track, and store all types of information, from digital certificates, democratic voting systems, logistics and messaging services, to intelligent contracts and, of course, money and financial transactions.

Without doubt, blockchain has turned the immutable and decentralized layer the internet has always dreamed about into a reality. This technology takes reliance out of the equation and replaces it with mathematical fact.

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