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Big Data scripting major digital transformation across spectrum of society and a real revolution is on cards: Golok Kumar Simli

Golok Kumar Simli, Chief of Technology, Passport Seva Programme , Ministry of External Affairs shares his opinions on the Big Data revolution and how it is impacting lives through its multiple usages. He advocates that the future digital foundation and digital transformation framework must support a good data governance model, and underlines the need for building an in-house strategic ICT team to retain the ownership of data/information, while leveraging the potential of Big Data, especially within government and public sector organisations

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It is learnt that Big Data is being extensively used in many fields to enhance the efficiency and get better results. What is the relevance of big data amid Covid-19 pandemic? Please explain in detail
In the beginning of 2020, a new virus was discovered that rapidly spread and disrupted the world like never before. Within a span of one to two months, the public health agencies around the world feared a terrible pandemic outbreak effecting millions of people. Till date, the number has grown close to 10 million cases, casualties crossing half a million and still counting. The worse, no vaccine or drug against the new virus was readily available which increases the worries and our thinking multifold. The only hope public health authorities and Government across the world had, was to slow down its spread so as to minimise the loss that not only impacted the world economy but also in every segments (sectors) of a living being. The Government and public health authorities are putting their best foot forward to collect, test and treat the impacted people, segregate the non-impacted and contained the spread further. Yet the actual picture of the pandemic that emerged globally has been found varying and behind the actuals. People may experience the symptom and might feel sick for days but wait before consulting a doctor or to the public health system. The ‘Aarogya Setu App’ of the Government of India has done an extraordinary work in this direction. However, due to late reporting and sometime due to negligence and unawareness, with a rapidly spreading disease like Covid-19, such lag of data/information has increased the difficulties of public health agencies at the most crucial times.

Telemedicine, remote care among others are the available options with the government machineries to help reduce strain on hospitals, while harnessing the potential of Big Data in a larger way. Robot and Robotic Process Automation may be used in airports, airplanes, trains, public transports and hospitals to monitor infected patients and disinfect facilities and resources. Public health is not only one area where Big Data is making huge difference, albeit, every other business sectors are being redesigned and restructured using “Big Data”. Government and industry are using Big Data to identify insights by analysing and predicting behaviour of citizens and customers through data derived from structured and unstructured sources, specially from social media, GPS-enabled services, IoT, CCTV footage. The Big Data would also dictate the evolving business model and new opportunities between ‘consumer and supplier’; ‘service provider and service seeker’; ‘Government and citizens’; and ‘Government and industry’.

As it unfolded, internet giant Google kept on publishing data on the coronavirus spread around the world, not just country-wise but down to specific region and even states. This could perhaps be achieved by the company by looking at what people were searching for on the internet. Since, Goggle receives over 63,000 searches per second, 3.8 millions searches per minutes, 228 millions searches per hour and over 5.6 billion searches per day [Source Google]; and saves them all, it has plenty of data to work with. While the Googlers guessed that the searches might be intended at getting virus/coronavirus information – typing the search word like “immunity booster”; “vitamin-C”; “medicine for cough and fever”, in essence that was not the point at all: probably they didn’t even know and they designed a system that didn’t care. What the system was aimed at, is to look for correlations between the frequency of certain searches and the spread of virus over time and space.

In fact, the system is aimed at processing millions of different mathematical models in order to test the search terms, comparing their prediction against actual flu/virus cases existed before of the similar characteristics. Such a method does not involve giving out mouth swabs or contacting doctors and physicians offices. Rather, it is built on Big Data, the ability of society to harness information in simple ways to generate meaningful insights or goods and services of considerable value. These learnings are also helping the public health system and the next pandemic comes around, the world will be in a better position to predict and prevent the spread of such pandemic with more precise tools and techniques. This is complemented by the powerful compute and Artificial Intelligence (AI) that is available today for quick research and faster testing of product/outcome required during outbreak like Covid-19. We are also witnessing, how AI and NLP based algorithm are used to analyse, identify, track and anticipate the patterns of such outbreak and achieve quicker results.

The degree to which an information revolution is already underway, Big Data is scripting a major digital transformation across a spectrum of society and we shall witness a real revolution, not in the powerful machines that analyses data but in data itself and how we leverage it.

How various organisations can utilise Big Data and do you believe that Big Data is going to reform the way we work and live? Please cite a few examples where big data is being widely used
The volume, velocity and veracity of data are genuinely speeding up. Study shows that the amount of stored data is almost five times faster than the world economy. At the same time, analysing and processing power of compute has grown 9-10 times faster. I personally feel, Big Data is about predictions though many a time it is characterised as part of AI. In my view, Big Data is not about trying to lesson a M/c to think like humans, it’s about applying math to huge volume of data so that probabilities could be surmised, e.g. detecting spam in email messages; that the typed letters “are” is supposed to be “are”. In reality, these systems perform and do their job because they are fed with lots of data on which their predictions are based. After all, Flipkart and Amazon can recommended your choice of clothing, shoes; Facebook knows your likes; LinkedIn can suggest your preferred jobs; Google can direct you to the most relevant search results etc. These are results of complex modeling and time is ripe, when we shall see the same technologies used to identify and track criminals before committing a crime, diagnosing illness, its causes and recommending treatments. Emerging technologies are applied in a big way to find solutions for our everyday problems and thus the impact of Big Data are large in a true sense. It is the time to evaluate and evolve, while looking for insights. The Big Data is here to stay and is poised to reform the way we think, work and live. All those digital data that we have gathered can now be harnessed in a way so that it can serve new purposes and unlock new forms of value to business and society at large. While most of us have considered Big Data as a technological revolution focusing on the hardware or software, the thinking must shift to what happens when the ”Data Converse”.

We are entering in to an era of constant data driven predictions, may be or may not be able to explain the reasons behind our decisions and what about its legal and regulatory compliances issues during post-facto dispute resolutions in a legal term. I have always advocated that the future digital foundation and digital transformation framework must support a good data governance model and visibility that reflects on principal owner of the data, its custodian, how is data being collected and govern, how data being collected is stored at rest and how the collected data is shared. In the Big Data world, when much of data’s value is in secondary use, that was completely missing during data collection, such a mechanism to ensure privacy may not be suitable at a later stage. In the age of Big Data, we need a privacy framework which focuses less on individual consent at the time of collection and more on holding ‘users of data’ accountable for what they do. In my view, the future privacy laws will define broad categories of uses, including ones that will be permissible without or with only limited and standardised safeguards. The Big Data governance model would ensure shift in controls from individual consent to ‘user of data’ with accountability attached. A similar standard should also apply outside government, when businesses make major and highly significant decisions about customer – to deny credit card, loan or to hire and fire. If such decisions are taken based on Big Data predictions, it is recommended that some safeguards must be built as part of decision making process.

While Big Data is transforming our lives by forecasting, improving, optimising, speeding up our decisions and maximising benefits, the larger challenge is what role is left for originality, value, faith, intuition, perception and uncertainty? The expanding level of awareness among us and – ‘The Earth Around You’; ‘The World You Chose’; ‘The Humankind Inside You’; and ‘The World You Can Change’ will have great significance in harnessing the potential use of Big Data.


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