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Interview: Emmanuel Letouzé, Data-Pop Alliance on Big Data for Development and Future Prospects


We discuss the field of Big Data for Development, current projects and future plans for Data-Pop Alliance, public participation opportunities, advice, and more.



emmaneul-letouzeEmmanuel Letouzé is the director and co-founder of Data-Pop Alliance on Big Data and development, jointly created by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), the MIT Media Lab and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). He is a Visiting Scholar at MIT Media Lab, a Fellow at HHI and a Senior Research Associate at ODI, as well as a PhD candidate (ABD) at UC Berkeley, writing his dissertation on Big Data and demographic research.

Emmanuel is the author of UN Global Pulse's White Paper "Big Data for Development" (2012), the lead author of the 2013 and 2014 OECD Fragile States reports and a regular contributor on Big Data and development.

He previously worked for UNDP in New York (2006-09) and in Hanoi for the French Ministry of Finance as a technical assistant in public finance and official statistics (2000-04). He holds a BA in Political Science and an MA in Economic Demography from Sciences Po Paris, and an MA in International Affairs from Columbia University, where he was a Fulbright fellow.

He is also a political cartoonist for various publications and media outlet including Medium and Rue89 in France, and a member of The Cartoon Movement.

First part of interview

Second part of interview

Third part of interview

Here is fourth and last part of my interview with him:

Anmol Rajpurohit: Q9. In the field of "Big Data for Development", can you name a few individuals or organizations whose work you admire?

social-physicsEmmanuel LetouzéI have mentioned quite a few individuals already; I think Sandy Pentland is really a pioneer in this space and has been leading and driving a lot of the discussions that are at the forefront today; I know that some of his arguments and examples—for instance those presented in his book ‘Social Physics’—may scare a few people, but he actually has a balanced and cautious perspective, in my opinion—when he talks about “saving Big Data from itself” for example or giving people greater rights over their data.

Sandy’s student Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye is doing great work—and despite his exposure he has remained humble. A few of our Research Affiliates have been especially active in the space for several years and published really good research—Linnet Taylor, Simone Sala, Bruno Lepri and Emilio Zagheni for example.

datakindI think DataKind, Jake Porway and Drew Conway have also done great things; I’d also mention Nuria Oliver and her team at Telefonica, Rahul Bhargava and Cesar Hidalgo at MIT Media Lab, and the work of Kate Crawford on data ethics. Evgeny Morozov, whom I have never met, is a critical and important voice too in my opinion. On the UN side apart from Global Pulse I would also mention to work of OCHA.

AR: Q10. What are the major projects that you are currently working on? What are your priorities for 2015?

current-projectsEL: We have four main strands of work; one is a research and technical assistance program with Colombia’s National Statistical Office funded by the World Bank; another is a series of empirical research and white papers on various topics including Big Data and climate change, ethics, literacy, and methods papers; the third is a 2-year professional training program we will be launching in the summer, funded by a major philanthropic institution implemented by the MIT Media Lab; the last one is our series of events, with for instance the Cartagena Data festival on April 20-22. We recently sent a Newsletter that describes some of these projects.

I’d say three of our big priorities for 2015-17 are ethics and human rights on the one hand—with a series of papers, events, in partnership, with the AAAS; and training and capacity on the other hand; in partnership with several organizations like Paris21, SciDev.net. The needs for training are huge and it’s an area where I think we are well positioned. The third one is the development of Data Spaces—physical multi-partner and interdisciplinary collaborative spaces—in Bogotá first in 2016 and Dakar next in 2016 or 17—where we and other partners would run a lot of our activities in these regions, from training to research via events, art fairs, etc.

AR: Q11. How can one join and contribute to the Data-Pop Alliance initiative? Are you looking for contributors with any particular skills?

public-participationEL: We are working out a strategy for people to be able to contribute in a more structured manner; we will be developing a blog post series to which we’d like people to be able to send submissions on key topics; we are also developing thematic working groups or ‘Data Nodes” animated by our network or Research Affiliates in which external people and groups will be able to participate.

And we will offer positions as funding becomes available for specific projects. We have too much to do so really all help is welcome. We are also developing a process for people to become Research Affiliates, and a proper internship program. But all of this takes time if you want to do it well.

The nature of our activities are to be very multidisciplinary—or ‘anti-disciplinary’ as the MIT Media Lab characterizes itself. We need people with data science skills, econometrics skills, writing skills, and communication skills. Above all, we need and will seek people who are driven, motivated, creative, humble, who have a collaborative spirit and are not afraid of taking a bit of risks in their careers.