Everything has to start somewhere, sometime. Three years ago, headlines of many technology journals looked at data as the new oil. Back in February, some talks about data took place in the data driven innovation week organized by IDRC of Canada in Cairo and honestly, most of us did not expect the event to be this significant. Fact is, all the participants came to a conclusion that data is not really the new oil but rather the new soil through which everything is planted and grown.
Industry experts, technology geeks and academic influencers from different countries all came together in one room for the sake of one goal: Getting the MENA on the world data driven innovation map!
The event was very interactive. The participants shared their work and portfolios with one another but the main focus was directed for open discussions and debates. Moreover, each panel of discussions had a theme, in an intention to tackle a certain problem and then open the floor for collecting ideas that yield to major enhancements and agreements among the participants and how to deal with that problem.
Later on the first day, three entrepreneurs presented their research in collaboration with IDRC. Jazem Helaoui from Tunisia, shared with us his findings regarding the current data ecosystem in the MENA region, benchmarked with other parts of the world with big emphasis on open data.
After that, Rayna Stamboliyska, Founder of Open MENA also had her research presented about the problems with open data followed by Abed Khooli from Palestine, with findings revolving around the academic sector and people’s readiness to work with big data and innovative solutions. Khooli and his colleague Marwan Tarazi shared their work on an enhanced curriculum, they seek to adopt in Berzeit University, that suits the innovative fields introduced with big data.
Day one was opened by his excellency the ambassador of Canada in Egypt emphasizing the role of Big Data in flourishing economies. The panels of day one stressed on the universal challenges of innovative data driven technologies including privacy, security, integrity, intellectual rights as well as talents.
Nonetheless, as the event was concerned with the MENA region, the problems and solutions revolved around specific problems the MENA countries suffered from, such as, youth unemployment in Egypt, the unorganized spread of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and other countries as well as other environmental and social problems. The panels were quite dense and everyone wanted to share their ideas and help find plans and alternative solutions to dealing with the proposed issues.
Among the most fruitful panels on that day discussed the barriers to reaching data and democratization it. Some people say the toughest problems give birth to the most creative solutions. Indeed, many touching ideas and examples were proposed, particularly tailored to combat the limitations on data access at the participant’s country or workplace. Solutions included projects and attempts to changing laws, raising awareness and tolerance towards cultural barriers to data access and sharing, incentivizing data collection as well as collaboration on data with governments, facilitating the work of data startups and initiating projects with NGOs to bring up the talents and skills that can empower data scientists and students.
Personal initiatives for helping data scientists automate data streaming from APIs, a project for Dr. Walid Saqaf, was also emphasized throughout the panels. Similarly, Jennifer Colville and Anisha Thapa unveiled some of the UNDP innovation projects in their attempt to work on the Sustainability and Development Goals especially in areas with wars, deteriorated living circumstances, along with various marginalized communities.
Numerous powerful and inspiring examples were brought up as well as discussions on the current situation and landscape to help participants assess where the region stands now. Big data for crisis management such as tracking Ebola patients and helping incubate their disease as well as many other projects were emphasized by Heather Leson from Qatar research foundation. Heather shared also some of the globally trending research topics which are expected to bring up better living conditions for people worldwide, enabling them to react more efficiently in cases of crisis.
In parallel, the academic sector community in the event evidently imposed a series of debates. Different groups proposed their current works, challenges as well as future plans and academic projects to help students be innovative and do more with data.
My Co-founder Ali Rebaie, explained to the participants about the new economy we are heading to along with the skills needed for the 21st century. He also discussed ephemeralization, the notion of doing more with less until you are eventually able to do everything with nothing. He also tackled the problem of data silos by narrating the story of the traveler man and his magical stone which enables him of doing the magical soup. The smart traveler took for granted the hype about his soup and infused its attractiveness among the different communities in the village until everyone wanted to participate with some ingredients to get part of the final soup. Obviously, with a silly stone, the traveler could cook a tasty soup and make everyone around be part of it.
Later on that panel, I introduced the participants to some of the projects we have done, or currently doing, at Data Aurora and got somehow into more technical details related to the implementation. I could tell that most of them were particularly interested with projects related to social network analytics and collecting insights within different networks.
You can check some of our projects in this scope on the Data Aurora website:
– Analyzing Instagram posts in Bogota, Colombia.
– Detecting the bridging component in retail purchases through loyalty-card analysis.
-Narrating the story of declining price in the Gas and oil Industry.
By the end of the event, Dr Raed Sharif, who played a crucial role in bridging the gap between the participants as well as their countries, when it comes to data driven innovation, stressed on the need for building a web portal that could facilitate the connection of participants and mash up their efforts to bring out better results.
He also revealed his passion to see more initiatives and more champions in this world. Sharif concluded with ideas for nurturing the ddi community and prioritized the work with data in different sectors. Everyone agreed of course, that this requires more research and entrepreneurship.
Along with the data driven innovation workshop about big data, I was leading another set of training days on data driven journalism, along with Rayna Stamboliyska and Amr Eleraqi (founder of info times).
The first day was organized for journalism and communication students at Cairo University whereas the second day targeted professional journalists and social media practitioners to introduce data journalism tools and techniques to them. We worked with the data pipeline, to allow participants to search for data, extract it, clean it and then come up with interactive stories and visualizations.
The sessions were very interactive and everyone was eager to know more. We would stop for breaks but end up spending the whole time answering questions and proposing examples and scenarios to better explain the ideas.
This has been a big week! Big Data, big talks, big dreams, big plans and big connections. We celebrated data love and innovation and consolidated findings to come up with a common vision and strategy regarding the MENA region. We were able to build on the relative findings, generate knowledge and drive actionable work. What’s important now is keeping up the efforts to allow a clearer tracing for the ddi mena on the world map!