The Bots have arrived, and they’re here to help humanitarians

A friend of mine at FAO recently told me that, like Food Security, data can be looked at in 3 dimensions: availability, access and utilization. I found this parallel very thought provoking and to some extent a very interesting way to look at data. So let’s give it a try:

We live in a world were data points are multiplying. Forbes reported in May that there are 2.5 quintillion bytes of data created each day (that’s a lot) at our current pace, but that pace is only accelerating with the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT). This trend impacts humanitarian actors in a scale that has not been seen before. Far is the time where secondary data analysis was composed in an old Red Cross paper report using a 20-year-old data census. That takes care of availability.

Consumed data must have a positive impact on people. It entails analysis, storage, sharing.  How we utilize data is a primary concern today. Data driven decision are, in many cases, a wishful idea. Data is everywhere but we often lack the ability to grasp its meaning. Data geeks are becoming the golden boys of many organizations developing incredibly advanced mathematical models and statistical algorithms. When you speak about analysis, people expect that you can code a machine learning algorithm in Python blindfolded. But let’s say, for the sake of this article, our organization resolves all these challenges and we have all the data easily at our disposal. So how do we access it?

The current trend is for the development of dashboards. Nearly one in every two calls for tenders coming from a humanitarian actor is to develop some kind of dashboard. But I often notice that most managers rarely log in to the organization system. It is a tedious and labor intensive operation to look around a web platform for the right data, clicking here and there to generate the right report. And that’s in a best case scenario where the organization’s information management system is actually well designed.  In many big organizations I know, there is one go to person who knows their way to data, the rare genius that is able to navigate the system and extract something meaningful out of it. This also poses a significant organizational risk if the data expert moves on to another job.

It would be so cool if we can just ask what we need using a voice recognized bot; let us imagine the scenario:

USER:     “Hi, how many beneficiaries did we have in Pakistan in 2017?”

BOT:        “170,000”

USER:     “Disaggregated by gender”

BOT:        “60% are female”

USER:     “And how many are IDPs?”

BOT:        “25%”

USER:     And what do we do for them

BOT:        We run 3 projects in this country

USER:     OK, can you show me the data

BOT:        Here you go ….

And a beautiful dashboard appears!

This is as easy as it gets and it is not tomorrow’s technology but is possible right now. All big IT companies have their solutions, Alexa, Cortona, Siri, etc. The technology exists and is very simple to put in place. I recently developed a pilot project for a UN organization which took a few weeks to create a solid . The next few weeks will reveal how the requested data can be presented.

Humanitarian staff do not have the time to look for data and extract interesting metrics from them. We can create all the dashboards we want and senior managers will keep asking for simple things and expect an answer. So instead of monopolizing organizations’ key resources, we should all have voice bots that can, let’s be honest, answer 80% of the questions we have every day on our organization data.

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