The 100 Questions Initiative: Sourcing 100 questions on key societal challenges that can be answered by data insights


100Q Screenshot

Press Release: “The Governance Lab at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering announced the launch of the 100 Questions Initiative — an effort to identify the most important societal questions whose answers can be found in data and data science if the power of data collaboratives is harnessed.

The initiative, launched with initial support from Schmidt Futures, seeks to address challenges on numerous topics, including migration, climate change, poverty, and the future of work.

For each of these areas and more, the initiative will seek to identify questions that could help unlock the potential of data and data science with the broader goal of fostering positive social, environmental, and economic transformation. These questions will be sourced by leveraging “bilinguals” — practitioners across disciplines from all over the world who possess both domain knowledge and data science expertise.

The 100 Questions Initiative starts by identifying 10 key questions related to migration. These include questions related to the geographies of migration, migrant well-being, enforcement and security, and the vulnerabilities of displaced people. This inaugural effort involves partnerships with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the European Commission, both of which will provide subject-matter expertise and facilitation support within the framework of the Big Data for Migration Alliance (BD4M).

“While there have been tremendous efforts to gather and analyze data relevant to many of the world’s most pressing challenges, as a society, we have not taken the time to ensure we’re asking the right questions to unlock the true potential of data to help address these challenges,” said Stefaan Verhulst, co-founder and chief research and development officer of The GovLab. “Unlike other efforts focused on data supply or data science expertise, this project seeks to radically improve the set of questions that, if answered, could transform the way we solve 21st century problems.”

In addition to identifying key questions, the 100 Questions Initiative will also focus on creating new data collaboratives. Data collaboratives are an emerging form of public-private partnership that help unlock the public interest value of previously siloed data. The GovLab has conducted significant research in the value of data collaboration, identifying that inter-sectoral collaboration can both increase access to information (e.g., the vast stores of data held by private companies) as well as unleash the potential of that information to serve the public good….(More)”.

How data collected from mobile phones can help electricity planning


Article by Eduardo Alejandro Martínez Ceseña, Joseph Mutale, Mathaios Panteli, and Pierluigi Mancarella in The Conversation: “Access to reliable and affordable electricity brings many benefits. It supports the growth of small businesses, allows students to study at night and protects health by offering an alternative cooking fuel to coal or wood.

Great efforts have been made to increase electrification in Africa, but rates remain low. In sub-Saharan Africa only 42% of urban areas have access to electricity, just 22% in rural areas.

This is mainly because there’s not enough sustained investment in electricity infrastructure, many systems can’t reliably support energy consumption or the price of electricity is too high.

Innovation is often seen as the way forward. For instance, cheaper and cleaner technologies, like solar storage systems deployed through mini grids, can offer a more affordable and reliable option. But, on their own, these solutions aren’t enough.

To design the best systems, planners must know where on- or off-grid systems should be placed, how big they need to be and what type of energy should be used for the most effective impact.

The problem is reliable data – like village size and energy demand – needed for rural energy planning is scarce or non-existent. Some can be estimated from records of human activities – like farming or access to schools and hospitals – which can show energy needs. But many developing countries have to rely on human activity data from incomplete and poorly maintained national census. This leads to inefficient planning.

In our research we found that data from mobile phones offer a solution. They provide a new source of information about what people are doing and where they’re located.

In sub-Saharan Africa, there are more people with mobile phones than access to electricity, as people are willing to commute to get a signal and/or charge their phones.

This means that there’s an abundance of data – that’s constantly updated and available even in areas that haven’t been electrified – that could be used to optimise electrification planning….

We were able to use mobile data to develop a countrywide electrification strategy for Senegal. Although Senegal has one of the highest access to electricity rates in sub-Saharan Africa, just 38% of people in rural areas have access.

By using mobile data we were able to identify the approximate size of rural villages and access to education and health facilities. This information was then used to size and cost different electrification options and select the most economic one for each zone – whether villages should be connected to the grids, or where off-grid systems – like solar battery systems – were a better option.

To collect the data we randomly selected mobile phone data from 450,000 users from Senegal’s main telecomms provider, Sonatel, to understand exactly how information from mobile phones could be used. This includes the location of user and the characteristics of the place they live….(More)”

Can transparency make extractive industries more accountable?


Blog by John Gaventa at IDS: “Over the last two decades great strides have been made in terms of holding extractive industries accountable.  As demonstrated at the Global Assembly of Publish What You Pay (PWYP), which I attended recently in Dakar, Senegal, more information than ever about revenue flows to governments from the oil gas and mining industries is now publicly available.  But new research suggests that such information disclosure, while important, is by itself not enough to hold companies to account, and address corruption.

… a recent study in Mozambique by researchers Nicholas Aworti and Adriano Adriano Nuvunga questions this assumption.  Supported by the Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) Research Programme, the research explored why greater transparency of information has not necessarily led to greater social and political action for accountability.

Like many countries in Africa, Mozambique is experiencing massive outside investments in recently discovered natural resources, including rich deposits of natural gas and oil, as well as coal and other minerals.  Over the last decade, NGOs like the Centre for Public Integrity, who helped facilitate the study, have done brave and often pioneering work to elicit information on the extractive industry, and to publish it in hard-hitting reports, widely reported in the press, and discussed at high-level stakeholder meetings.

Yet, as Aworti and Nuvunga summarise in a policy brief based on their research, ‘neither these numerous investigative reports nor the EITI validation reports have inspired social and political action such as public protest or state prosecution.’   Corruption continues, and despite the newfound mineral wealth, the country remains one of the poorest in Africa.

The authors ask, ‘If information disclosure has not been enough to galvanise citizen and institutional action, what could be the reason?’ The research found 18 other factors that affect whether information leads to action, including the quality of the information and how it is disseminated, the degree of citizen empowerment, the nature of the political regime, and the role of external donors in insisting on accountability….

The research and the challenges highlighted by the Mozambique case point to the need for new approaches.   At the Global Assembly in Dakar several hundred of PYWP’s more than 700 members from 45 countries gathered to discuss and to approve the organisation’s next strategic plan. Among other points, the plan calls for going beyond transparency –  to more intentionally use information to foster and promote citizen action,  strengthen  grassroots participation and voice on mining issues, and  improve links with other related civil society movements working on gender, climate and tax justice in the extractives field.

Coming at a time where increasing push back and repression threaten the space for citizens to speak truth to power, this is a bold call.  I chaired two sessions with PWYP activists who had been beaten, jailed, threatened or exiled for challenging mining companies, and 70 per cent of the delegates at the conference said their work had been affected by this more repressive environment….(More)”.

Seven design principles for using blockchain for social impact


Stefaan Verhulst at Apolitical: “2018 will probably be remembered as the bust of the blockchain hype. Yet even as crypto currencies continue to sink in value and popular interest, the potential of using blockchain technologies to achieve social ends remains important to consider but poorly understood.

In 2019, business will continue to explore blockchain for sectors as disparate as finance, agriculture, logistics and healthcare. Policymakers and social innovators should also leverage 2019 to become more sophisticated about blockchain’s real promise, limitations  and current practice.

In a recent report I prepared with Andrew Young, with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, we looked at the potential risks and challenges of using blockchain for social change — or “Blockchan.ge.” A number of implementations and platforms are already demonstrating potential social impact.

The technology is now being used to address issues as varied as homelessness in New York City, the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar and government corruption around the world.

In an illustration of the breadth of current experimentation, Stanford’s Center for Social Innovation recently analysed and mapped nearly 200 organisations and projects trying to create positive social change using blockchain. Likewise, the GovLab is developing a mapping of blockchange implementations across regions and topic areas; it currently contains 60 entries.

All these examples provide impressive — and hopeful — proof of concept. Yet despite the very clear potential of blockchain, there has been little systematic analysis. For what types of social impact is it best suited? Under what conditions is it most likely to lead to real social change? What challenges does blockchain face, what risks does it pose and how should these be confronted and mitigated?

These are just some of the questions our report, which builds its analysis on 10 case studies assembled through original research, seeks to address.

While the report is focused on identity management, it contains a number of lessons and insights that are applicable more generally to the subject of blockchange.

In particular, it contains seven design principles that can guide individuals or organisations considering the use of blockchain for social impact. We call these the Genesis principles, and they are outlined at the end of this article…(More)”.

Whither large International Non-Governmental Organisations?


Working Paper by Penny Lawrence: “Large international non-government organisations (INGOs) seem to be in an existential crisis in their role in the fight for social justice. Many, such as Save the Children or Oxfam, have become big well-known brands with compliance expectations similar to big businesses. Yet the public still imagine them to be run by volunteers. Their context is changing so fast, and so unpredictably, that they are struggling to keep up. It is a time of extraordinary disruptive change including the digital transformation, changing societal norms and engagement expectations and political upheaval and challenge. Fifteen years ago the political centre-ground in the UK seemed firm, with expanding space for civil society organisations to operate. Space for civil society voice now seems more threatened and challenged (Kenny 2015).

There has been a decline in trust in large charities in particular, partly as a result of their own complacency, acting as if the argument for aid has been won. Partly as a result of questioned practices e.g. the fundraising scandal of 2016/17 (where repeated mail drops to individuals requesting funds caused public backlash) and the safeguarding scandal of 2018 (where historic cases of sexual abuse by INGO staff, including Oxfam, were revisited by media in the wake of the #me too movement). This is also partly as a result of political challenge on INGOs’ advocacy and influencing role, their bias and their voice:

‘Some government ministers regard the charity sector with suspicion because it largely employs senior people with a left-wing perspective on life and because of other unfair criticisms of government it means there is regularly a tension between big charities and the conservative party’ Richard Wilson (Former Minister for Civil Society) 2018

On the other hand many feel that charities who have taken significant contracts to deliver services for the state have forfeited their independent voice and lost their way:

‘The voluntary sector risks declining over the next ten years into a mere instrument of a shrunken state, voiceless and toothless, unless it seizes the agenda and creates its own vision.’ Professor Nicholas Deakin 2014

It’s a tough context to be leading an INGO through, but INGOs have appeared ill prepared and slow to respond to the threats and opportunities, not realising how much they may need to change to respond to the fast evolving context and expectations. Large INGOs spend most of their energy exploiting present grant and contract business models, rather than exploring the opportunities to overcome poverty offered by such disruptive change. Their size and structures do not enable agility. They are too internally focused and self-referencing at a time when the world around them is changing so fast, and when political sands have shifted. Focussing on the internationalisation of structures and decision-making means large INGOs are ‘defeated by our own complexity’, as one INGO interviewee put it.

The purpose of this paper is to stimulate thinking amongst large INGOs at a time of such extraordinary disruptive change. The paper explores options for large INGOs, in terms of function and structure. After outlining large INGOs’ history, changing context, value and current thinking, it explores learning from others outside the development sector before suggesting the emerging options. It reflects on what’s encouraging and what’s stopping change and offers possible choices and pathways forwards….(More)”.

Why Is Behavioral Economics So Popular?


David Gal at the New York Times: “Behavioral economics seems to have captured the popular imagination. Authors like Michael Lewis write about it in best sellers like “The Undoing Project,” while pioneers of the field like Daniel Kahneman popularize it in books like “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” Its lexicon of “nudging,” “framing bias” and “the endowment effect” has become part of the vernacular of business, finance and policymaking. Even “Crazy Rich Asians,” the summer’s blockbuster romantic comedy, features an explicit nod to “loss aversion,” a key concept in the field.

What is behavioral economics, and why has it become so popular? The field has been described by Richard Thaler, one of its founders, as “economics done with strong injections of good psychology.” Proponents view it as a way to make economics more accurate by incorporating more realistic assumptions about how humans behave.

In practice, much of behavioral economics consists in using psychological insights to influence behavior. These interventions tend to be small, often involving subtle changes in how choices are presented: for example, whether you have to “opt in” to a 401(k) savings plan versus having to “opt out.” In this respect, behavioral economics can be thought of as endorsing the outsize benefits of psychological “tricks,” rather than as calling for more fundamental behavioral or policy change.

The popularity of such low-cost psychological interventions, or “nudges,” under the label of behavioral economics is in part a triumph of marketing. It reflects the widespread perception that behavioral economics combines the cleverness and fun of pop psychology with the rigor and relevance of economics.

Yet this triumph has come at a cost. In order to appeal to other economists, behavioral economists are too often concerned with describing how human behavior deviates from the assumptions of standard economic models, rather than with understanding why people behave the way they do.

Consider loss aversion. This is the notion that losses have a bigger psychological impact than gains do — that losing $5, for example, feels worse than gaining $5 feels good. Behavioral economists point to loss aversion as a psychological glitch that explains a lot of puzzling human conduct. But in an article published this year, the psychologist Derek D. Rucker and I contend that the behaviors most commonly attributed to loss aversion are a result of other causes….

There is nothing wrong with achieving small victories with minor interventions. The worry, however, is that the perceived simplicity and efficacy of such tactics will distract decision makers from more substantive efforts — for example, reducing electricity consumption by taxing it more heavily or investing in renewable energy resources.

It is great that behavioral economics is receiving its due; the field has contributed significantly to our understanding of ourselves. But in all the excitement, it’s important to keep an eye on its limits….(More)”.

The Role of Urban Living Labs in Entrepreneurship, Energy, and Governance of Smart Cities


Chapter by Ana Pego and Maria do Rosário Matos Bernardo in Handbook of Research on Entrepreneurship and Marketing for Global Reach in the Digital Economy: “Urban living labs (ULL) are a new concept which involves users in innovation and development and are regarded as a way of meeting the innovation challenges faced by information and communication technology (ICT) service providers.

The chapter focuses on the role of urban living labs in entrepreneurship, energy and governance of smart cities, where it is performed the relationship between innovations, governance, and renewable energy. The methodology proposed will focus on content analysis and on the exploration of some European examples of implemented ULL, namely Amsterdam, Helsinki, Stockholm and Copenhagen. The contributions of the present research should be the consolidation of knowledge about the impact of ULL on innovation and development of smart cities regarding the concepts of renewable energy, smart governance and entrepreneurship….(More)”

Is the Government More Entrepreneurial Than You Think?


 Freakonomics Radio (Podcast): We all know the standard story: our economy would be more dynamic if only the government would get out of the way. The economist Mariana Mazzucato says we’ve got that story backward. She argues that the government, by funding so much early-stage research, is hugely responsible for big successes in tech, pharma, energy, and more. But the government also does a terrible job in claiming credit — and, more important, getting a return on its investment….

Quote:

MAZZUCATO: “…And I’ve been thinking about this especially around the big data and the kind of new questions around privacy with Facebook, etc. Instead of having a situation where all the data basically gets captured, which is citizens’ data, by companies which then, in some way, we have to pay into in terms of accessing these great new services — whether they’re free or not, we’re still indirectly paying. We should have the data in some sort of public repository because it’s citizens’ data. The technology itself was funded by the citizens. What would Uber be without GPS, publicly financed? What would Google be without the Internet, publicly financed? So, the tech was financed from the state, the citizens; it’s their data. Why not completely reverse the current relationship and have that data in a public repository which companies actually have to pay into to get access to it under certain strict conditions which could be set by an independent advisory council?… (More)”

How Smart Should a City Be? Toronto Is Finding Out


Laura Bliss at CityLab: “A data-driven “neighborhood of the future” masterminded by a Google corporate sibling, the Quayside project could be a milestone in digital-age city-building. But after a year of scandal in Silicon Valley, questions about privacy and security remain…

Quayside was billed as “the world’s first neighborhood built from the internet up,” according to Sidewalk Labs’ vision plan, which won the RFP to develop this waterfront parcel. The startup’s pitch married “digital infrastructure” with an utopian promise: to make life easier, cheaper, and happier for Torontonians.

Everything from pedestrian traffic and energy use to the fill-height of a public trash bin and the occupancy of an apartment building could be counted, geo-tagged, and put to use by a wifi-connected “digital layer” undergirding the neighborhood’s physical elements. It would sense movement, gather data, and send information back to a centralized map of the neighborhood. “With heightened ability to measure the neighborhood comes better ways to manage it,” stated the winning document. “Sidewalk expects Quayside to become the most measurable community in the world.”

“Smart cities are largely an invention of the private sector—an effort to create a market within government,” Wylie wrote in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper in December 2017. “The business opportunities are clear. The risks inherent to residents, less so.” A month later, at a Toronto City Council meeting, Wylie gave a deputation asking officials to “ensure that the data and data infrastructure of this project are the property of the city of Toronto and its residents.”

In this case, the unwary Trojans would be Waterfront Toronto, the nonprofit corporation appointed by three levels of Canadian government to own, manage, and build on the Port Lands, 800 largely undeveloped acres between downtown and Lake Ontario. When Waterfront Toronto gave Sidewalk Labs a green light for Quayside in October, the startup committed $50 million to a one-year consultation, which was recently extended by several months. The plan is to submit a final “Master Innovation and Development Plan” by the end of this year.

That somewhat Orwellian vision of city management had privacy advocates and academics concerned from the the start. Bianca Wylie, the co-founder of the technology advocacy group Tech Reset Canada, has been perhaps the most outspoken of the project’s local critics. For the last year, she’s spoken up at public fora, written pointed op-edsand Medium posts, and warned city officials of what she sees as the “Trojan horse” of smart city marketing: private companies that stride into town promising better urban governance, but are really there to sell software and monetize citizen data.

But there has been no guarantee about who would own the data at the core of its proposal—much of which would ostensibly be gathered in public space. Also unresolved is the question of whether this data could be sold. With little transparency about what that means from the company or its partner, some Torontonians are wondering what Waterfront Toronto—and by extension, the public—is giving away….(More)”.

Odd Numbers: Algorithms alone can’t meaningfully hold other algorithms accountable


Frank Pasquale at Real Life Magazine: “Algorithms increasingly govern our social world, transforming data into scores or rankings that decide who gets credit, jobs, dates, policing, and much more. The field of “algorithmic accountability” has arisen to highlight the problems with such methods of classifying people, and it has great promise: Cutting-edge work in critical algorithm studies applies social theory to current events; law and policy experts seem to publish new articles daily on how artificial intelligence shapes our lives, and a growing community of researchers has developed a field known as “Fairness, Accuracy, and Transparency in Machine Learning.”

The social scientists, attorneys, and computer scientists promoting algorithmic accountability aspire to advance knowledge and promote justice. But what should such “accountability” more specifically consist of? Who will define it? At a two-day, interdisciplinary roundtable on AI ethics I recently attended, such questions featured prominently, and humanists, policy experts, and lawyers engaged in a free-wheeling discussion about topics ranging from robot arms races to computationally planned economies. But at the end of the event, an emissary from a group funded by Elon Musk and Peter Thiel among others pronounced our work useless. “You have no common methodology,” he informed us (apparently unaware that that’s the point of an interdisciplinary meeting). “We have a great deal of money to fund real research on AI ethics and policy”— which he thought of as dry, economistic modeling of competition and cooperation via technology — “but this is not the right group.” He then gratuitously lashed out at academics in attendance as “rent seekers,” largely because we had the temerity to advance distinctive disciplinary perspectives rather than fall in line with his research agenda.

Most corporate contacts and philanthrocapitalists are more polite, but their sense of what is realistic and what is utopian, what is worth studying and what is mere ideology, is strongly shaping algorithmic accountability research in both social science and computer science. This influence in the realm of ideas has powerful effects beyond it. Energy that could be put into better public transit systems is instead diverted to perfect the coding of self-driving cars. Anti-surveillance activism transmogrifies into proposals to improve facial recognition systems to better recognize all faces. To help payday-loan seekers, developers might design data-segmentation protocols to show them what personal information they should reveal to get a lower interest rate. But the idea that such self-monitoring and data curation can be a trap, disciplining the user in ever finer-grained ways, remains less explored. Trying to make these games fairer, the research elides the possibility of rejecting them altogether….(More)”.