Effective use of big data ‘could improve policy-making’

Participants follow a presentation at the UNBigData2019 event in Kigali yesterday. Emmanuel Kwizera.

Data on transport using an electronic card that records number of passengers, points from where they board public buses, to when they tap or swipe their cards, can help know which areas or bus stops have higher numbers of passengers.

This situation can therefore inform policymakers on how to devise ways to deploy more cars there compared to areas with lower numbers.

Again, data on registration of all newborns from hospitals [being done in Rwanda] can help know whether the babies were born healthy such as by considering their weight at birth, which responsible entities can base on to develop strategies, say, for improving health of the newborns.

Participants attend the UNBigData2019 event

These are two scenarios that Ivan Murenzi, Deputy Director General at National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda (NISR) used to explain the importance of utilising big data.

He was speaking to journalists on Monday on the sidelines of workshops which are part of the 5th International Conference on Big Data for official statistics which is being held in Rwanda running from April 29 through May 3, 2019.

According to the United Nations Statistical Commission, digital information is continuously being generated because of widespread and constant use of telecommunications and other devices driven by innovations in technology such as data from Global Positioning System (GPS) devices, automated teller machines, scanning devices, sensors, mobile phones, satellites and social media.

Participants follow a presentation at the UNBigData2019 event in Kigali yesterday

The high volume, high velocity and wide variety of Big Data require new tools and methods for capturing, managing and processing it efficiently.

Big Data analysis, which is done through technology-based calculation such as computation, helps to establish hidden patterns, trends, correlations and other insights, such as those relating to human behaviour and interactions.

“Now we have huge amount of data available. We currently have over 70 percent of Rwandans who use mobile phones. In using mobile phones, there is extensive data that is generated such as in call logs, sending messages, and transferring money by means of mobile money services,” he said.

“All of that is data which, once   you use it, it can help you better understand the living conditions of people or different phenomena in the economy,” he added.

He said that such timely and richer information significantly complements the usual survey or census which the statistics agency carries out.

NISR and the Central Bank, have been working on a project to examine different data that banks and microfinance institutions collect like transactions people make though use of ATMs, debit cards or have deposited and withdrawn money.

He said that having an opportunity to analyse the data gives ability to get current statistics for instance weekly or monthly and helps further understand beyond the results of traditional surveys.

It also gives opportunity to many people including researchers, innovators, technology, and academics to access the data which can they can use to better understand given a situation, he indicated.

“There are many technology companies which engaged in research to develop applications that can help people make various transactions. As we gather the data and they have access to them, it can facilitate them to improve their technology,” he said.

“We are also working in partnership with various stakeholders to be able to access that data in one space, set up the right infrastructure where it can be analysed,” he said.

Big data analytics, he said, is about value addition in the data access and data usage, which he said he believes will be so meaningful for policymakers as well as the private sector.

“It’s a great opportunity, it will require us to invest in building capacities to analyse this kind of data,” he observed, citing inadequate data scientists.

Ronald Jansen, Assistant Director of the United Nations Statistics Division, told The New Times that traditional data sources like carrying out household surveys, or conducting surveys for agriculture, or taking census, are not only expensive but they take time.

He indicated that big data such as that generated through phones and satellites, help to quickly develop policies at a much faster rate.

“So we [can] benchmark with the traditional ones and we have new data sources which have quicker estimates on changes in population. While the census is every 10 years, in between you want to see what are the changes in population numbers within Rwanda,” he said pointing out that the traditional 10-year-interval between censuses was too long. 

The first three days of the aforementioned conference has been devoted to training workshops for African countries and a seminar of activities of a Data Science Campus for official statistics.