Motahar heaves a small sigh of relief. His truck, supposedly carrying a ton of sand, has smoothly sailed through the first check post. There had been two thorough checks in the past week, and based on experience, Motahar knew there will be none today. He is confident that the final check post would be a breeze and he could safely pass off his package to his counterparts on the other side of the border.
A few miles away Inspector Arif’s computer beeped. On his screen, Tamabil area, the bordering zone between Bangladesh and India, had turned red, indicating a high possibility of a crime taking place here. Arif spoke into the button on his collar. ‘Unit 103, please conduct a thorough check of each truck in the Tamabil border area, I repeat, each truck.’
Motahar’s truck is one of the 67 vehicles which is brought to a halt. A thorough check is done. Five women in their late teens are recovered. Motahar is arrested. The women are being interrogated to reconcile them with their families. Investigation is in full swing to uncover other members of the human trafficking syndicate which has been in operation for the last decade in Bangladesh.
This scenario is akin to a movie clip to the average Bangladeshis, who are unaware of how Big Data & Analytics is helping law enforcers bust crimes.
What went on in the background of Arif’s computer, was a complex algorithm that picked up info from Motahar’s credit card usage, phone calls and email correspondence and beaded the data together, and superimposed the information on a probability map predicting where the suspect might be moving to.2
What is Big Data & Analytics
Big Data in its simplest definition means data which is either very big, or growing very fast, or contains much variety such as unstructured data. As of 2012, every day 2.5 quintillion (2.5×1018) bytes of data were created1. Emailing, uploading photos and videos on social media, making online purchases – all contribute to this overwhelming amount of data – you and I are both a part of it.
Gartner, the eminent IT research and advisory firm, uses the terms Volume, Velocity and Variety to describe this technology-concept, which is sweeping the world over. Add to all the data that is being churned out daily, an element of analytics – a way to make sense of what the data signifies and what trends it points to – and you have magic. Entities smart enough to utilize the concept are becoming productive and efficient by being able to respond in real time.
In the hypothetical situation depicted in the opening of this article, big data is playing a key role in helping law enforcers take a proactive step by helping them avert a crime, rather than following the traditional approach of responding/reacting to a crime.
Big Data Benefits
In California, IBM, along with research universities, is already using Big Data & Analytics to predict outbreak of dengue and malaria with the aim to understand the spread of the disease in real time and to deploy public resources more efficiently. By closely monitoring variables like changes in rainfall, temperature and soil acidity and merging the information with other data, like airport and highway traffic, the team is working on better understanding outbreaks.6
Closer to home, Vietnam’s fourth largest city Da Nang had signed a contract with IBM to install a traffic management system in an effort to lessen traffic clogging. Traffic lights will be synchronized to minimize traffic jams based on readings from software and sensors embedded in roads, highways and on buses. Commuters will be able to see bus arrival times and in the future also gain information on the crowd situation on buses via video screens and mobile apps3.
UN’s Global Pulse Initiative has been carrying out predictive disaster relief in Indonesia and caught a discussion on Twitter regarding whether vaccines are halal. If the discussions blew out of proportion and people became convinced that vaccines contain pork products, then they would opt to avoid vaccinating children who would end up paralyzed. UN’s Global Pulse is currently working on capturing consumer sentiments early on to take preemptive measures before misinformed situations spiral out of control.
Bangladesh and Big Data
Consider the benefits Big Data can bring to a company in an emerging market, manufacturing consumer packaged goods. The challenge for these companies, just like companies elsewhere, is to understand consumer sentiments. What are the buying trends? What are the users speaking about? Do they like our new brand? What modifications would make the brand more appealing to them? – These could be potential questions they ask. And the methods the emerging-market based companies use to extract insights can be as primitive as manually collecting information based on sales forces’ observation, reading retailer receipts and delving into shipment figures. Imagine the kind of information-mine Big Data & Analytics can offer by tapping into the expanding social media landscape and presenting actionable reports out of all the unstructured data floating around.
Imagine the groundbreaking possibilities of innovation if for a brand manager, her device would prompt her to brand a certain aisle based on measurements of customer footfall and mean time-spent, and also give indications on what kind of consumer promotion to carry out depending on customer sentiments.
What frontiers would such innovations open up for the healthcare front in Bangaldesh, where 1,362 dengue cases were reported in 2011? Imagine being able to predict dengue breakout by location and eradicating the malaise before it even has a chance to wreak havoc7.
Adoption in Bangladesh
For a country boasting a population of about 158.6 million people and an internet penetration rate of 3.5%5, the potential that big data holds is not really insignificant. Moreover, key drivers catalyzing big data adoption are all present in Bangladesh. Quick adoption of online platforms such as bikroy.com, proliferation of smart phones and the consumerisation of 3G technology – all indicate the onset of a Big Data era where data will increase in volume, with increasing velocity and variety.
Believe it’s a safe bet to say that the private sector will be an early adopter before the government sector embraces it. Zooming into the private sector, who do you presume would be the key decision makers who would spearhead the concept of mining big data for insights?
Across Asia Pacific, recent trends suggest that technology is increasingly moving out of the realms of IT departments and CIOs. By 2016, Line of Business Executives will be directly involved in 80% of new IT Investments8. Heads of Marketing, for instance, will have a bigger say than CIOs, on what technology to adopt for better measurement of churn rate and gaining insight into loyalty figures.
The threat-to-privacy wave that accompanies the big data wave also deserves to be given apt attention. If someone uses facebook to “check in” at a resort in St. Martin, that would mean she is not at home. While a company can cherry pick this information and subject the vacationer to a procession of advertisement offers, a terrorist could plan something far more detrimental. And our vacationer would not be fond of either situation – both constitute a breach of privacy.
However, when this very same person is purchasing a camera on Amazon and the website prompts her with a list of other useful materials (such as camera cover, battery or memory card), purchased by customers with profiles similar to hers, she would be more than willing to browse for more information. Moreover, for fields such as scientific research, public health, national security and law enforcement, which play a key role in ensuring a safe and secure life for the populace, big data mining is surely not a crime.
Gartner predicts that through 2016, 25% of organizations using consumer data will face reputational damage due to insufficient understanding of information trust issues, and 20% of CIOs in regulated industries will lose their jobs for failing to implement the discipline of information governance successfully10.
The key is to demarcate the zone between utilizing big data for bringing social good for the majority vs. exploiting the data mine for data-receivers’ benefits at the data-providers’ cost. The good news is, by the time the big data wave crashes on to the IT shores of Bangladesh, there will be enough use case scenarios in the world to help formulate/enhance our own local data privacy laws.
Imagine a Bangladesh, oft quoted to be one of the most densely populated countries in the world, having a population which is nearly-100% facebook educated, credit-card enabled and regularly transacts online. Next, imagine infrastructures have been placed and bureaucracy ironed out to pave way for IT companies to flourish. This still-mythical hyper-connected and digitized land of Lalon could finally bid farewell to epidemics, weed out traffickers, gain a far more efficient private-sector cogwheel and enjoy a host of other real-time miracles, by standing on the shoulders of Big Data & Analytics.
7World Health Organization ‐ Regional Office for South East Asia Region, “SEARO Dengue Situation Update, 24 September 2012”
Also published on Medium.