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Columnists

Data set to become a critical resource

 

Last week’s launch of the cashless transport payment system by President Uhuru Kenyatta, puts our country on the pedestal of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) diffusion, which is an important driver for economic development.

The system will generate an enormous amount of data and unless we strategise upfront on how to use it, we may never develop the much anticipated knowledge economy.

We are at the beginning of data explosion. Raw data is being collected in virtually every aspect of our life. Retail stores now aggressively gather data about their customers.

Mobile operators, financial institutions, educational establishments, health facilities, asset registries and government departments are all centres of data collection.

As we collect these data, young Kenyan developers want most of the government data in an open platform to enable them develop new important applications.

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But different institutions have different data protocols. There is no legal framework for use of such data yet there is value in standardising these data and extracting useful knowledge for prudent decision making.

The direction of technology is such that data is organised in specific formats that will enable effective and efficient management of such data. For example, if a person is single and at some time she gets married, the computer systems if they are linked, can make the changes in all databases. This is often referred to as Internet of Things (the interconnection of uniquely identifiable embedded computing devices within the existing Internet infrastructure) where machines will talk to machines.
New Manufacturing systems will require the use of Internet of things. It is imperative that we adopt these new technologies or else we perish into analogue oblivion.

Data will soon become as important as the oil reserves in Turkana. Experiences from other countries that have had oil is such that disputes arise out of the great expectations of the oil revenues. Similarly, in the coming days, there will be many disputes around data.

To stall this anticipated crisis, we must move fast to create a legal framework around data. The long awaited Freedom of Information (FOI) as well as Data Protection legislation would help minimise such disputes.

There is need also to develop regulations around the use of data collected from the public before we start infringing on individual liberties of the Kenyan people.

The world has embraced Big data (an all-encompassing term for any collection of data sets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using traditional data processing applications) but Africa still lags behind.

Subsistence farmers continue to grow low yielding food crops, plant crops on soils that would not support greatest productivity and rush their crop into market at a wrong time when demand is not in their favour.

These and other incidences where data is critical in making the right decisions, form the basis for reasons why we need to build a data culture and establish the means of achieving data literacy across the country.

But Africa does not have enough data scientists to decipher what is in our big data. The demand for people who would aggregate the data, analyse it and create simple visualisations is inexhaustible at the moment.

This is a new and transformative skill that must be acquired the same way that literacy transformed access to knowledge in the centuries after the printing press. It is the only way of differentiating fact from passionate opinions that characterise Africa.

In expanding digital data sources, there is much to gain especially from our chaotic transport sector in Kenya. There will be reduced crime.

The matatu industry will become more formal and eventually pay taxes. Investors would gain more control of their businesses and fully appreciate investment returns.

The government can use the data to plan infrastructure by simply understanding the patterns of travel. But more importantly is the fact that the passenger profile will enable smart advertising. This where adverts are directed to an audience that rides the matatus at a particular time.

As Marc Benioff said, “The world is being re-shaped by the convergence of social, mobile, cloud, big data, community and other powerful forces. The combination of these technologies unlocks an incredible opportunity to connect everything together in a new way and is dramatically transforming the way we live and work.”

Dr Ndemo is a senior lecturer, University of Nairobi, and a former permanent secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication.

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