Surveying the region: Changing the game for data collection in the Caribbean

A mobile SMS-based survey service from a Caribbean-based company could change the way data is collected and analysed in the region.

If Kenfield Griffith has anything to say about it, his company will soon be adding potent fuel to the digital revolution smouldering quietly throughout the islands of the Caribbean.

Born in Montserrat and of Barbadian extract, Griffith is the CEO of mSurvey, a mobile surveys company based in Kenya. Kristal Peters, Director of Business Development and Strategy, runs the company’s Trinidad and Tobago office.

"It's Friday morning. Let's create a survey together," Griffith says to a group of relative strangers gathered in a small room in the Max Richards Building at the Faculty of Engineering of The University of the West Indies, St Augustine for mSurvey’s workshop on data collection and surveying using mobile technology.

His confidence seems well placed. Within minutes, the demo survey is set up and sent to a pool of prospective participants located in Kenya and Trinidad and Tobago, who immediately start returning their responses via SMS technology. Soon, their data start streaming in to a dynamic web page, which aggregates and visualises the survey results in real-time. In no time at all, the roomful of workshop participants, about fifty in all, are analysing the fresh data.

The audience is an interesting mix of academics, researchers, policy makers, mobile carrier representatives, students and software developers, and many seem eager to learn more.

“Do you sell data to third parties?” asks one man seated toward the middle of the room.

"We have the technology that folks use to get other people's data. But we don't sell anyone's data to third parties," Griffith replied.

Moments later, he clarified his business model. The primary service that mSurvey provides is to help people, businesses and organisations to use mobile technology to get the precise data they need to make high-impact decisions quickly.

"We're trying to solve a problem here and that problem is getting data.”

To have some idea of what Griffith means, you need only to have tried to get survey data quickly and reliably in the Caribbean context. For many organisations trying to use survey data to harvest meaningful insights and increase their ROI, the biggest stumbling block is the inability to gather data in the first place. Door-to-door surveys are costly and painfully slow. Open data sources like the World Bank are always just a click away but don't necessarily give the specific insights required for contextual decision-making. And commissioned online surveys are challenged by the limits of the local population's access and connectivity to the Internet. By some estimates, residential broadband Internet penetration in Trinidad and Tobago, for example, remains as low as 45%.

“Getting information in emerging markets is a pain point for most of us,” Griffith said.

But for every problem, a solution. Mobile penetration in Caribbean islands like Trinidad and Tobago can be as high as 140%. Everyone, statistically speaking, has a phone...or two. So the mSurvey platform allows the entire survey process to be completed over a regular mobile SMS plan at no cost to participants. Respondents don’t need mobile or Wi-Fi broadband Internet connection, nor even a smartphone.

For mSurvey, the ubiquity of the mobile phone has become the answer to one of the region's biggest obstacles to data collection.

Tracking Trinidad and Tobago murders

I've blogged before about the open data journalism project called Bullet Points. Now I need your collective experience/expertise to help me with the project. Bullet Points tracks murders in Trinidad and Tobago. The murders are tracked on this Google doc.

The fatal incidents are listed chronologically and are numbered by victim (murder toll). The victims are announced on Twitter by their toll number. This system has some serious limitations.

PROBLEM Firstly, it is geared toward tracking the murder victims but is an inadequate way of tracking the actual killings themselves. For example, when there is a double murder, the toll goes up by two but the number of incidents goes up by only one.

Secondly, killings do not always occur in the same chronological order that the victims' bodies are discovered. Sometimes bodies of murder victims are discovered after several days. When this happens, the relevant killing must be inserted somewhere in the middle of the existing chronological list, which obviously changes the toll count of all subsequent victims. Unfortunately, because our current system relies on the toll count to identify the victim, it has now run into this serious limitation.

PROPOSED SOLUTION I think that what I need to do is add another column that contains a unique reference number for each incident. The unique reference number can follow a standard protocol such as [DATE][INTEGER]. For example, the most recent murder, which was discovered today, would have a reference number 2014013001. I think this will deal with the problem but I am not sure it is the best solution.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. If you think you can help, leave a comment below to share your perspective on this problem and proposed solution.

Mapping Caribbean crime: Guyana Crime Reports' data visualisations take fresh aim at crime

Crowdsourced, technology-driven and visually compelling. Not words you'd typically associate with crime reporting in the Caribbean. But that could soon change as one tech entrepreneur based in Georgetown, Guyana is taking a fresh approach to the country's crime problems.

Meet Vijay Datadin, the main player behind Guyana Crime Reports, the country's newest data journalism website, which adds a combination of GIS mapping and crowdsourcing to traditional crime news reporting.

"You see police in Guyana and across the region calling for public assistance in fighting crime. They've never particularly mentioned that this was the kind of help they wanted or needed, but this was what I knew I could do to help. So I decided to just do it," he said.

In 2003, Datadin founded Red Spider, a small web development startup, which today maintains the Guyana Crime Reports and its presence on FacebookGoogle plus and Twitter , @GuyanaCrime.

The website is part news aggregator, making it a good one-stop source for various crime reports related to Guyana, published in local and international news media. Citizens can also submit crime reports through a form on the website, although those reports are treated slightly differently from the ones aggregated from traditional media sources.

"Particularly when these reports are made anonymously, we follow up with some sort of verification exercise, especially if the report in question could damage to someone's name, reputation or character," Datadin said.

"But reports from the media have a certain amount of verification built into them because there's a journalist and/or editor involved in that publication process, so those are simply aggregated."

Enhancing Public Debate

Red Spider is considering forging informal relationships directly with journalists who share their interest in improving the way that crime is reported in Guyana. The aim, Datadin explained, is not to competewith old media companies but to enhance the essential news service that they provide.

"We're not a news service, and we will never be in the business of breaking news. At times we're first to break a story, and that's almost accidental."

For Datadin, old and new media share a common goal. They exist not just to distribute information but to help concerned readers make sense of large amounts of information over time. Ans he takes seriously the responsibility to help readers and followers to understand how local incidents of crime fit into a larger national picture.

"As a citizen of the country, it would be to my benefit if crime went down. So I'm doing this not for any immediate commercial benefit but because I think it needed to be done. There needs to be a public conversation about crime, a conversation based not only on opinion but on facts, one that affords a more reasoned and inclusive debate about factors that cause crime nad the policies that can help curb it," he said.

"I think that with a more informed public, we can have a better conversation about what we should do about crime," he added, conceding that the site has taken only early evolutionary steps toward that goal.

The ultimate objective, he says, is to have a positive impact not just on public discourse but on public policy.

"We made soft approaches to the Guyana Police Force and the Ministry of Home Affairs," he said.

Mapping Crime Data

Datadin holds a postgraduate Masters degree in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) from Edinburgh University, Scotland. Plus, the word 'data' is literally in his name! So the fact that Guyana Crime Reports relies heavily on maps to visually represent the spread and scope of crime incidence really shouldn't come as a surprise.

"Maps help readers to see exactly where one incident took place," he said.

By making the crime maps public, Guyana Crime Reports effectively creates an equal opportunity for anyone seeking to understand how crime is trending both in their area and nationally.

"Both the public and the Home Affairs officials can review the map and detect trends in a particular area or nationally. You can see not just what happened recently but what has been happening over time."

Building Digital Journalism

By using maps to visualise crime data, Guyana Crime Reports has already set a significant precedent for digital journalism in the region. Audiences across the region would benefit greatly if more Caribbean newsrooms added maps to their arsenal of storytelling tools.

Crime maps are a powerful communication tool, giving audiences a quick grasp of the bigger picture without requiring them to know the (sometimes gory) details of every incident.

Because maps impart understanding visually, they allow crime reporters can attract a different kind of reader, one who may be less inclined to...read. And any way you look at it, that's still good news.

Speaking of maps

One quick side note as a footer to this piece about maps. If you're wondering, Guyana is actually not an island at all but a South American country bordered by Venezuela, Brazil and Suriname. But it is a member of the Caribbean Community, Caricom.

Wooding receives LACNIC lifetime achievement award

The Latin American and Caribbean Internet Addresses Registry (LACNIC) has announced that Trinidad-born technology expert Bevil Wooding is the 2013 recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Established in 2009, the LACNIC award honours people who have contributed significantly to the development of the Internet and the Information Society in Latin America and the Caribbean.

“It’s an honour to receive this prestigious award from LACNIC. This was completely unexpected. This recognition strengthens my resolve to continue working to ensure that our people, institutions and governments are fully empowered to use technology for the development of our region,” Wooding said.

A pioneer in the development of technology solutions and educational resources, Wooding wears many hats in his work across the region and around the world. As an Internet Strategist and Caribbean Outreach Manger for the US-based research non-profit, Packet Clearing House, he has been the leading advocate for the proliferation of Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) in the Caribbean. His efforts have led to the establishment of IXPs in Grenada, the British Virgin Islands, Dominica and Barbados.

He is also the Chief Knowledge Officer at the international non-profit Congress WBN where he has pioneered the development of Internet streaming and software applications now used across the world. He has also worked with the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) to develop the Caribbean’s first-ever Digital Media syllabus.

In addition, he is one of the co-architects and the Program Director of the Caribbean Telecommunications Union's Caribbean ICT Roadshow. The Roadshow has helped emphasise issues ranging from Internet infrastructure and broadband access in the Caribbean to cybersecurity and the impact of social media on parenting and education.

Reflecting on the award, Wooding said, "In spite of the many challenges, I am convinced that the Caribbean and Latin America has the creativity, and the capacity to make a meaningful and significant impact on the Internet and on global society."

A virtual technology ambassador, Wooding regularly represents the interests of the region at international fora. He has also come in for wide praise for his innovative initiatives to introduce young people to digital content creation through his BrightPath Foundation, a technology education non-profit.

“His efforts have been distinguished by a deliberate commitment to collaboration and an emphasis on linking building regional communities,” said Bernadette Lewis, Secretary-General of the Caribbean Telecommunications Union.

Lewis sat on the panel of judges for the award, alongside noted Internet experts such as Ida Holz, Rafael Ibarra, Carlos A. Afonso and Rodrigo de la Parra.

Wooding is a founding member of the Caribbean Network Operators Group (CaribNOG). Through his contribution as Program Director, CaribNOG has become a dedicated community of computer network operators and technical stakeholders. The volunteer based group now provides a unique regional forum for sharing technical experiences and building human resource capacity.

“It is an honour to have the support and friendship of so many incredibly talented and extremely committed individuals and organisations from the region and across the world," Wooding said.

Tracking T&T Energy Revenue: There's an app for that!

Do you want an easier way to track T&T’s oil and gas revenue? There’s an app for that! And following a workshop to promote open data hosted by the T&T Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (TTEITI), there may soon be more than one.

TTEITI is part of a global initiative that promotes accountability and transparency by companies and governments involved in extractive industries, such as gas, oil, quarrying and mining. Held in partnership with the international non-profit BrightPath Foundation, the event attracted a diverse audience of technologists, new media practitioners and business innovators interested in software development for social change.

The workshop is part of the TTEITI secretariat’s ongoing efforts to publicise the contents of its first report, titled Making Sense of T&T’s Energy Dollars, published last September. The report provides independently reconciled figures for company payments and government revenues and receipts for fiscal year 2010 to 2011. Through its partnership with BrightPath, TTEITI was the first to have a mobile app created as part of the release of the report data.

Open access Mark Regis, head of the TTEITI Secretariat, credited BrightPath with providing the “ecosystem” of human and technical capacity needed to extract the technical and financial data contained in the lengthy, written report and convert it to a machine-readable format that can be used by interested software developers to build useful applications.

“What TTEITI needed was a way to get their information out to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. And that’s exactly what the technology allows,” said BrightPath executive director, Bevil Wooding. “We recognised that this needed to be part of a much broader conversation about the need for greater openness in the publication of public data across all sectors, hence the idea to host the Open Data Workshop,” Wooding said.

“What we’ve done here for energy, can also be done for health, education, commerce, transport, works, national security and other areas where public data is not easily accessible to the public. This is technology being used for the greater good. That’s what we’re going after.”

Developers welcome The next step, Wooding said, is to encourage more young people, especially secondary school students with an interest in technology, to see themselves as having a valuable role to play in the open data movement for national development. Irwin Williams, a postgraduate Computer Studies student at The University of the West Indies (UWI) Department of Computing and Information Technology and a professional software developer at Teleios Systems, facilitated the hackathon segment of the workshop.

“This was the first time a government agency presented its data in an open format and invited developers to come out and write apps on it,” Williams said in a blog post Friday. “The app that resulted from the process allowed us to even think about the data differently...I’m glad we were able to be part of what I hope to be the first of many such initiatives.”

By the end of the codesprint, Williams had guided participants to complete one app focused on the differences between Government’s expected receipts and companies’ reported payments. Participants committed to completing several other apps, all of which aim to make it easier for the average citizen to track how the country manages its natural resource wealth. Among the coders was Nigel Henry, founder and lead analyst of Solution By Simulation.

“The workshop opened my eyes to the fact that software development is a necessary link between data collection and public data analysis. I realise now that people who call themselves data scientists can and should play a part in creating mobile and desktop apps that allow interested persons who are not professional data analysts to manipulate data in useful ways,” Henry said. Henry said he previously wrote code as “just a personal hobby” but he now sees it as “a professional responsibility to contribute to national development.”

Follow the money “The concept of open data is totally in step with the essential mandate and core vision of EITI,” said Regis. “Following the data is following the money.” Regis described the open data workshop as the next logical step in TTEITI’s ongoing central mission to make information about wealth distribution more easily and permanently accessible to the entire population.

“People aren’t generally interested in reading about revenue figures. So they may not read our 70-page report or even the 12-page summary, but using the TTEITI app they can still get answers to specific questions about the country’s wealth.” T&T was the first country to release a mobile app as part of the publication of the internationally accessible report. Copies of the report can be downloaded via app, in the Google Play store.

The workshop took place Thursday at Kapok Hotel, Port of Spain. Presenters included Gerard Best, Guardian new media editor, Keisha Thomas, a UK-based open data researcher, and Dr Patrick Hosein and Dr Kim Mallalieu, both of The UWI St Augustine. TTEITI plans to hold several similar events in 2014.

TTEITI to host open data workshop on oil and gas revenues

Software developers, journalists and innovators with an interest in technology and transparency will benefit from a one-day open data workshop to be held Thursday.

The event, hosted by the the Trinidad and Tobago Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (TTEITI), will use data published in the first TTEITI report, published on September 30.

The report contains details about the way the energy sector operates, and reveals for the first time the individual payments made by oil and gas companies—both private and state—to the Government on an annual basis.“

The special open data workshop will guide participants in building web and mobile applications, generating custom reports and building data visualisations. It will be facilitated by international technology expert Bevil Wooding,” said Mark Regis, head of the TTEITI secretariat.

“Open Data is an approach to promote the ideal that certain data should be freely available in formats that allow anyone to use and republish as they wish, without restriction. In this workshop, we’ll be discussing the benefits of open data in improving transparency and accountability in governance.”

The data produced from the TTEITI’s first report will be made available in an open format and will be used to demonstrate some practical ways to extract valuable information from open data sources,” said Wooding, Chief Knowledge Officer of Congress WBN and founder of the BrightPath Foundation.

Trinidad and Tobago was the first country to release a mobile app as part of the publication of the internationally accessible report.

The Trinidad and Tobago Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative is an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) funded program.

The Open Data workshop is part of TTEITI’s roadshow designed to share the contents on the first report with the general public.It will be held at the Kapok Hotel, Port of Spain from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Copies of the report can be downloaded from the TTEITI Web site www.tteiti.org.tt or via the TTEITI mobile application available in the Google Play store.