Interview: Emmanuel Letouzé, Data-Pop Alliance on the Role of Big Data in Economic Development

We discuss the emerging Big Data ecosystem, its key players, and the severe consequences of inadequate statistical capabilities across many African nations.

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

Here is second part of my interview with him:

Anmol Rajpurohit: Q4. How do you describe the Big Data ecosystem and categorize its major players?

Emmanuel LetouzéI’ll limit my answer to the ‘Big Data and development’ ecosystem, which is the one I know best and is actually pretty vast and big-data-ecosystemcomplex. First and foremost I’ll say it’s a fascinating and vibrant space, both in terms of the actors and topics that animate it. It’s a mixed bag of academics, UN people, think-tank folks, researchers and managers in big private companies especially telcos… Last year I wrote a series of articles for a ‘Spotlight’ report on Big Data and development published by SciDev.Net and one of the pieces actually described the key actors in the space; I hope and think it’s still a useful resource.

Two characteristics that I would like to stress on are that it’s both a highly connected and highly competitive space. It’s highly connected in the sense that if you take 15 or 20 key people—maybe even a dozen—and their institutions and their networks, you will find a lot of overlap and common ties and it creates a web that covers a good 80% of the key initiatives going on. These are people who have known and worked with each other for 4 or 5 years, sometimes more. I would call these the ‘usual suspects’ of Big Data and development, who meet at the same events several times per month sometimes.

Recently at a conference at Leiden University, Hague the Director of the Peace some-pioneersInformatics Lab took and tweeted a photo with Bill Hoffman from the WEF, Robert Kirkpatrick for Global Pulse, Nicolas de Cordes from Orange and I, which read “Some pioneers in (big) data driven development”; I don’t know if we are ‘pioneers’—and if we are even remotely we are certainly not the only ones—and if I belong in that group, but the fact is that we have been in this space for longer than many others and know each other quite well now. There is value in this, because it has created trust, allowed and fostered partnerships and collaborations, and decreased duplications of efforts, that kind of things. It’s hard to do something without involving the others in some way at some point.

At the same time if you look at the photo in question, you see middle-aged white male—two Americans and two French, one of whom living in the US—and it’s actually not completely unrepresentative of the ecosystem; it’s quite male-dominated and US centric. One of connecting points of all of us is Sandy Pentland at MIT—our Academic Director, who also co-chairs the WEF’s Global Agenda Council on Data-Driven Development and about a dozen other initiatives, and talks to and knows everybody or almost everybody in the space. In and around the WEF Council you also find important figures—not just middle-aged white guys, too. I’d mention Danah Boyd, Kate Crawford, Juliana Rotich, for instance.

It’ also a much wider ecosystem—with people working on different facets, including human rights and ethics, for example; I’d mention Lucy Berhnolz and Patrick Ball, notably. But you still find ties there too. Of course there are parts of the ecosystem that I am less or not familiar with—and what and whom I know is biased by my own position, being in the US, interacting with these same people. But overall I still think it’s a relatively small space with a smaller nucleus, let’s say.

I also said it was competitive; it’s competitive for both personal and institutional reasons—in which I include financial. As much as we know and often appreciate each other, we also often compete for the same funding sources, try to craft a sub-space for ourselves and our organizations; there are also people with pretty strong personalities and egos in the lot, typically smart and influential—so operating in it isn't a breeze, it can be tough, frustrating. It sometimes leads to ‘sub-optimal’ sharing of information—which is sort of ironic with all the talks about the ‘data revolution’ being about transparency, etc.

But overall it’s a really exciting ecosystem and times to be in I think.