Art And Science Of The Nudge – Innovation In Indian Policymaking

Vinayak Dalmia at Swarajya: “In September last year, a news release stated that NITI Aayog, in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will help set up a “nudge unit”. The stated aim is to deepen the reach of certain flagship programmes including Swachh Bharat, Jan Dhan Yojana and Skill Development.

Mainstream publications have also begun to argue for the same. Since a lot of India’s social problems are behavioural in nature, subtle, inexpensive changes in the “environment” prove more effective than elaborate laws or policies. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself hinted at the psychological nature of ills such as gender violence and sanitation. Pratap Bhanu Mehta states – “social failure is as serious a matter as market failure”. The Prime Minister has started with moral persuasion on issues of cleanliness or giving up LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) subsidies. A formal and rigorous approach to some of these problems should be the next logical step.

Government and/or policymakers are in many ways architects designing “choices” and social environments we live in. As designers, they must leverage the fundamental truth that all actors and agents are psychological beings having less-than-perfect rationality. So, while behavioural science operates on the premise that the brain is prone to making mistakes, psychology can address the flaws and design smarter policies.

For example, open defecation is a big problem in India. It stands tangential to the Prime Minister’s Swachh Bharat dream. In spite of building toilets, in some cases, the usage rates are no more than 50 per cent. World Bank economist Nidhi Khurana has proposed communicating the harms of this behaviour as opposed to the benefits of using a toilet. In effect, she is suggesting the use of the theory of “loss aversion” which states that people value potential losses more than potential gains (on average, twice as much). Studies have also found that subtle changes in the sense of ownership bring significant improvements.

Noteworthy is the immunisation rate in Rajasthan. It increased after free lentils were given to women who brought their children to dispensaries. Colour-coded footprints in the Delhi Metro is borrowed from Copenhagen in order to institute better civic sense. In Kenya, weekly text reminders help ensure HIV patients adhere to medication schedules….(More)”.

Data’s big moment? Here’s what you need to know

Opinion piece by Claire Melamed, and Mahamudu Bawumia: “Knowledge is power, and knowledge will empower humanity to tackle the most serious challenges of our time. We are all reliant on accurate knowledge to achieve the collective ambition of the Sustainable Development Goals, and the clock is ticking.

So let’s test your knowledge: A) Are boys or girls under 2 years old more likely to be stunted? B) Are slum-dwellers more likely to be young or old? C) What proportion of disabled people are unemployed? D) What proportion of migrants have birth certificates?

Answer — no one knows.

Data is the story of people’s lives in numbers. Data allows researchers, campaigners, and policymakers to understand how societies work, who gains, and who loses from changes and crises. If you’re not in the data, you’re not in the picture — and too many people are still uncounted. There’s a huge need for concerted efforts to uncover the realities of life for the “left behind” in 2017, and a coalition of partners have been working to disaggregate data on gender, race, age, disabilities, migratory status, and more.

But data has a PR problem. Much as it used to be fine to say “I hate mathematics,” today we all encounter people who think numbers are a distraction from the real business of helping people. But we cannot turn our backs on the greatest renewable resource of our time — the resource that will inform and guide humanity to both define and solve our problems….(More)”.

Citizen science volunteers driven by desire to learn

UoP News: “People who give up their time for online volunteering are mainly motivated by a desire to learn, a new study has found.

The research surveyed volunteers on ‘citizen science’ projects and suggests that this type of volunteering could be used to increase general knowledge of science within society.

The study, led by Dr Joe Cox from the Department of Economics and Finance, discovered that an appetite to learn more about the subject was the number one driver for online volunteers, followed by being part of a community. It also revealed that many volunteers are motivated by a desire for escapism.

Online volunteering and crowdsourcing projects typically involve input from large numbers of contributors working individually but towards a common goal. This study surveyed 2000 people who volunteer for ‘citizen science’ projects hosted by Zooniverse, a collection of research projects that rely on volunteers to help scientists with the challenge of interpreting massive amounts of data….“What was interesting was that characteristics such as age, gender and level of education had no correlation with the amount of time people give up and the length of time they stay on a project. These participants were relatively highly educated compared with the rest of the population, but those with the highest levels of education do not appear to contribute the most effort and information towards these projects.”

The study noticed pronounced changes in how people are motivated at different stages of the volunteer process. While a desire to learn is the most important motivation among contributors at the early stages, the opportunities for social interaction and escapism become more important motivations at later stages….

He suggests that online volunteering and citizen science projects could incentivise participation by offering clearly defined opportunities for learning, while representing an effective way of increasing scientific literacy and knowledge within society….(More)”.

Innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals

UNDP: “In 2014, UNDP, with the generous support of the Government of Denmark, established an Innovation Facility to improve service delivery and support national governments and citizens to tackle complex challenges.

The report ‘Spark, Scale, Sustain’ shares UNDP’s approach to innovation, over 40 case studies of innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals in practice and Features on Alternative Finance, Behavioral Insights, Data Innovation and Public Policy Labs.

Download the report to find out more about the innovation initiatives that are testing and scaling solutions to address challenges across five areas:

  • Eradicate Poverty, Leave No One Behind
  • Protect the Planet
  • Build Peaceful Societies, Prevent Violent Conflict
  • Manage Risk, Improve Disaster Response
  • Advance Gender Equality & Women’s Empowerment….(More)”.

NIH-funded team uses smartphone data in global study of physical activity

National Institutes of Health: “Using a larger dataset than for any previous human movement study, National Institutes of Health-funded researchers at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, have tracked physical activity by population for more than 100 countries. Their research follows on a recent estimate that more than 5 million people die each year from causes associated with inactivity.

The large-scale study of daily step data from anonymous smartphone users dials in on how countries, genders, and community types fare in terms of physical activity and what results may mean for intervention efforts around physical activity and obesity. The study was published July 10, 2017, in the advance online edition of Nature.

“Big data is not just about big numbers, but also the patterns that can explain important health trends,” said Grace Peng, Ph.D., director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) program in Computational Modeling, Simulation and Analysis.

“Data science and modeling can be immensely powerful tools. They can aid in harnessing and analyzing all the personalized data that we get from our phones and wearable devices.”

Almost three quarters of adults in developed countries and half of adults in developing economies carry a smartphone. The devices are equipped with tiny accelerometers, computer chip that maintains the orientation of the screen, and can also automatically record stepping motions. The users whose data contributed to this study subscribed to the Azumio Argus app, a free application for tracking physical activity and other health behaviors….

In addition to the step records, the researchers accessed age, gender, and height and weight status of users who registered the smartphone app. They used the same calculation that economists use for income inequality — called the Gini index — to calculate activity inequality by country.

“These results reveal how much of a population is activity-rich, and how much of a population is activity-poor,” Delp said. “In regions with high activity inequality there are many people who are activity poor, and activity inequality is a strong predictor of health outcomes.”…

The researchers investigated the idea that making improvements in a city’s walkability — creating an environment that is safe and enjoyable to walk — could reduce activity inequality and the activity gender gap.

“If you must cross major highways to get from point A to point B in a city, the walkability is low; people rely on cars,” Delp said. “In cities like New York and San Francisco, where you can get across town on foot safely, the city has high walkability.”

Data from 69 U.S. cities showed that higher walkability scores are associated with lower activity inequality. Higher walkability is associated with significantly more daily steps across all age, gender, and body-mass-index categories.  However, the researchers found that women recorded comparatively less activity than men in places that are less walkable.

The study exemplifies how smartphones can deliver new insights about key health behaviors, including what the authors categorize as the global pandemic of physical inactivity….(More)”.

Government behavioural economics ‘nudge unit’ needs a shove in a new direction

Andrew Frain and Randal Tame in The Conversation: “The Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian Government (BETA) or “nudge unit”, founded in 2015, is using behavioural economics in an effort to improve policy outcomes. The problem? Evidence shows it may be the wrong way to address major problems like inequality.

Put simply, behavioural economics is severely limited in its approach to inequality. Fortunately, other psychological approaches are better suited.

Behavioural economics is built on a particular tradition in psychology, sometimes called the American tradition. At its heart is a distinction between rational and irrational psychological processes.

These are often described in terms of two separate cognitive systems. One is a “slow” deliberate system where logic and reasoning prevails, and another is a “fast” automatic system where stereotypes and unconscious biases hold sway.

Behavioural economics assumes that perceptions of groups (e.g. races, genders and nationalities) are driven by irrationality and that we should stop grouping people by stereotypes or labels. Rather, we should view them as individuals.

However, this rules out important inequality-busting techniques like collective protest, quotas, and affirmative action (favouring those who are marginalised in society). All of these rely on perceiving people as members of a group rather than individuals….

Inconvenient results

BETA recently published the findings of its Australian Public Service study into blind recruitment.

In that study, gender and ethnicity information was removed from descriptions of potential job candidates. It was a study designed to interrupt unconscious biases against women and ethnic minorities.

The results were surprising – blind recruitment made things worse for women and members of ethnic minorities. These results illustrate the limits of behavioural economics in action.

In the study, Australian Public Service managers participated in a hypothetical recruitment as selectors. Converse to expectations, when the gender of candidates was unknown (i.e. blind recruitment), the likelihood of being shortlisted decreased for women and increased for men. Indigenous women, in particular, were less likely to be shortlisted.

BETA interprets this as evidence of “subtle affirmative action taking place among reviewers”.

Here lies the challenge. On the one hand, the goal of de-identification was to eliminate the role of unconscious biases in recruitment, removing the influence of characteristics not relevant to potential performance on the job.

On the other hand, BETA tacitly accepts the identified affirmative action for women and ethnic minorities.

This is inconsistent. BETA is left advocating for blind recruitment to mitigate unconscious biases, but not when those biases lead to the outcomes they want. This is the trap of behavioural economics….(More)”.

Data for Development: The Case for Information, Not Just Data

Daniela Ligiero at the Council on Foreign Relations: “When it comes to development, more data is often better—but in the quest for more data, we can often forget about ensuring we have information, which is even more valuable. Information is data that have been recorded, classified, organized, analyzed, interpreted, and translated within a framework so that meaning emerges. At the end of the day, information is what guides action and change.

The need for more data

In 2015, world leaders came together to adopt a new global agenda to guide efforts over the next fifteen years, the Sustainable Development Goals. The High-level Political Forum (HLPF), to be held this year at the United Nations on July 10-19, is an opportunity for review of the 2030 Agenda, and will include an in-depth analysis of seven of the seventeen goals—including those focused on poverty, health, and gender equality. As part of the HLPF, member states are encouraged to undergo voluntary national reviews of progress across goals to facilitate the sharing of experiences, including successes, challenges, and lessons learned; to strengthen policies and institutions; and to mobilize multi-stakeholder support and partnerships for the implementation of the agenda.

A significant challenge that countries continue to face in this process, and one that becomes painfully evident during the HLPF, is the lack of data to establish baselines and track progress. Fortunately, new initiatives aligned with the 2030 Agenda are working to focus on data, such as the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data. There are also initiatives focus on collecting more and better data in particular areas, like gender data (e.g., Data2X; UN Women’s Making Every Girl and Woman Count). This work is important and urgently needed.

Data to monitor global progress on the goals is critical to keeping countries accountable to their commitments and allows countries to examine how they are doing across multiple, ambitious goals. However, equally important is the rich, granular national and sub-national level data that can guide the development and implementation of evidence-based, effective programs and policies. These kinds of data are also often lacking or of poor quality, in which case more data and better data is essential. But a frequently-ignored piece of the puzzle at the national level is improved use of the data we already have.

Making the most of the data we have

To illustrate this point, consider the Together for Girls partnership, which was built on obtaining new data where it was lacking and effectively translating it into information to change policies and programs. We are a partnership between national governments, UN agencies and private sector organizations working to break cycles of violence, with special attention to sexual violence against girls. …The first pillar of our work is focused on understanding violence against children within a country, always at the request of the national government. We do this through a national household survey – the Violence Against Children Survey (VACS), led by national governments, CDC, and UNICEF as part of the Together for Girls Partnership….

The truth is there is a plethora of data at the country level, generated by surveys, special studies, administrative systems, private sector, and citizens that can provide meaningful insights across all the development goals.

Connecting the dots

But data—like our programs’—often remain in silos. For example, data focused on violence against children is typically not top of mind for those working on women’s empowerment or adolescent health. Yet, as an example, the VACS can offer valuable information about how sexual violence against girls, as young as 13,is connected to adolescent pregnancy—or how one of the most common perpetrators of sexual violence against girls is a partner, a pattern that starts early and is a predictor for victimization and perpetration later in life.  However, these data are not consistently used across actors working on programs related to adolescent pregnancy and violence against women….(More)”.

Gender Biases in Cyberspace: A Two-Stage Model, the New Arena of Wikipedia and Other Websites

Paper by Shlomit Yanisky-Ravid and Amy Mittelman: “Increasingly, there has been a focus on creating democratic standards and norms in order to best facilitate open exchange of information and communication online―a goal that fits neatly within the feminist aim to democratize content creation and community. Collaborative websites, such as blogs, social networks, and, as focused on in this Article, Wikipedia, represent both a cyberspace community entirely outside the strictures of the traditional (intellectual) proprietary paradigm and one that professes to truly embody the philosophy of a completely open, free, and democratic resource for all. In theory, collaborative websites are the solution for which social activists, intellectual property opponents, and feminist theorists have been waiting. Unfortunately, we are now realizing that this utopian dream does not exist as anticipated: the Internet is neither neutral nor open to everyone. More importantly, these websites are not egalitarian; rather, they facilitate new ways to exclude and subordinate women. This Article innovatively argues that the virtual world excludes women in two stages: first, by controlling websites and filtering out women; and second, by exposing women who survived the first stage to a hostile environment. Wikipedia, as well as other cyber-space environments, demonstrates the execution of the model, which results in the exclusion of women from the virtual sphere with all the implications thereof….(More)”.

How did awful panel discussions become the default format?

 at The Guardian: “With the occasional exception, my mood in conferences usually swings between boredom, despair and rage. The turgid/self-aggrandizing keynotes and coma-inducing panels, followed by people (usually men) asking ‘questions’ that are really comments, and usually not on topic. The chairs who abdicate responsibility and let all the speakers over-run, so that the only genuinely productive bit of the day (networking at coffee breaks and lunch) gets squeezed. I end up dozing off, or furiously scribbling abuse in my notebook as a form of therapy, and hoping my neighbours can’t see what I’m writing. I probably look a bit unhinged…

This matters both because of the lost opportunity that badly run conferences represent, and because they cost money and time. I hope that if it was easy to fix, people would have done so already, but the fact is that the format is tired and unproductive.

For example, how did something as truly awful as panel discussions become the default format? They end up being a parade of people reading out papers, or they include terrible powerpoints crammed with too many words and illegible graphics. Can we try other formats, like speed dating (eg 10 people pitch their work for 2 minutes each, then each goes to a table and the audience hooks up (intellectually, I mean) with the ones they were interested in); world cafes; simulation games; joint tasks (eg come up with an infographic that explains X)? Anything, really. Yes ‘manels’ (male only panels – take the pledge here) are an outrage, but why not go for complete abolition, rather than mere gender balance?

Conferences frequently discuss evidence and results. So where is the evidence and results for the efficacy of conferences? Given the resources being ploughed into research on development (DFID alone spends about £350m a year), surely it would be a worthwhile investment, if it hasn’t already been done, to sponsor a research programme that runs multiple parallel experiments with different event formats, and compares the results in terms of participant feedback, how much people retain a month after the event etc? At the very least, can they find or commission a systematic review on what the existing evidence says?

Feedback systems could really help. A public eBay-type ratings system to rank speakers/conferences would provide nice examples of good practice for people to draw on (and bad practice to avoid). Or why not go real-time and encourage instant audience feedback? OK, maybe Occupy-style thumbs up from the audience if they like the speaker, thumbs down if they don’t would be a bit in-your-face for academe, but why not introduce a twitterwall to encourage the audience to interact with the speaker (perhaps with moderation to stop people testing the limits, as my LSE students did to Owen Barder last term)?

We need to get better at shaping the format to fit the the precise purpose of the conference. … if the best you can manage is ‘disseminating new research’ of ‘information sharing’, alarm bells should probably ring….(More)”.

Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are

Book by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz: “Blending the informed analysis of The Signal and the Noise with the instructive iconoclasm of Think Like a Freak, a fascinating, illuminating, and witty look at what the vast amounts of information now instantly available to us reveals about ourselves and our world—provided we ask the right questions.

By the end of an average day in the early twenty-first century, human beings searching the internet will amass eight trillion gigabytes of data. This staggering amount of information—unprecedented in history—can tell us a great deal about who we are—the fears, desires, and behaviors that drive us, and the conscious and unconscious decisions we make. From the profound to the mundane, we can gain astonishing knowledge about the human psyche that less than twenty years ago, seemed unfathomable.

Everybody Lies offers fascinating, surprising, and sometimes laugh-out-loud insights into everything from economics to ethics to sports to race to sex, gender and more, all drawn from the world of big data. What percentage of white voters didn’t vote for Barack Obama because he’s black? Does where you go to school effect how successful you are in life? Do parents secretly favor boy children over girls? Do violent films affect the crime rate? Can you beat the stock market? How regularly do we lie about our sex lives and who’s more self-conscious about sex, men or women?

Investigating these questions and a host of others, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz offers revelations that can help us understand ourselves and our lives better. Drawing on studies and experiments on how we really live and think, he demonstrates in fascinating and often funny ways the extent to which all the world is indeed a lab. With conclusions ranging from strange-but-true to thought-provoking to disturbing, he explores the power of this digital truth serum and its deeper potential—revealing biases deeply embedded within us, information we can use to change our culture, and the questions we’re afraid to ask that might be essential to our health—both emotional and physical. All of us are touched by big data everyday, and its influence is multiplying. Everybody Lies challenges us to think differently about how we see it and the world…(More)”.