By Abed Khooli
If knowledge is power, then data is a superpower. Data is the basis of the data-information-knowledge-wisdom (DIKW) pyramid. Adding context to raw data produces information that can be processed and distilled further into knowledge. Wisdom, on the other hand, comes from applying knowledge in action and can’t be codified – at least for the time being.
It has been said that data is the new (crude) oil of the twenty-first century. Being the fuel of the fourth industrial revolution, it differentiates those who lead from those who lag. Major multi-billion-dollar companies such as Google and Facebook are literally ruling the world and running business empires with no assets but data. (Thanks to big data, Facebook knows more about people than do the people themselves.) Business and economic growth are not the only outcomes of data, but planning, decision-making, and overall resilience readiness are significant applications of data for the social good.
Data, and its derivatives, has been around from the start of human history, and people’s lives have always been dependent on it, albeit in a simplistic manner. Now, our daily life is fully controlled by data – it even augments our brains as we cannot live without internet searches, our social feeds, or smart devices. Not only is it easy and relatively cheap to access, store, analyze, and transfer data, but data collection methods through social media, smart devices, and connected sensors (Internet of Things – IoT) are abundant. Big data is being amassed and used for business and social analytics through machine learning and AI algorithms, thanks to computing power and advanced tools and frameworks.
Advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence in the past few years have risen to new levels, surpassing human capacity in certain tasks, including some medical diagnoses. Text generation, self-driving cars, and conversational AI (think Siri, Cortana, Alexa, and intelligent chatbots) are a few examples of where AI (powered by data) will increasingly affect how we live, do business, and build relations. The routine tasks performed by humans are all candidates to utilize robotics and AI systems to perform – leaving human workers tasked with a limited set of cognitive and similar work, and threatening the job market. Government programs on universal basic income have gained momentum as automation replaces workers in manufacturing and other sectors. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic might have slowed down such efforts (with more focus on health response and relief); but it increased the speed of digital transformation efforts, forcing distance education, work from home, and e-commerce while exposing weak structures and emphasizing resiliency and the huge potential of data and AI in this field as well.
Data is at the center of human development. Like tangible resources, it is now a key differentiator between the haves and the have-nots. Recent advances in machine learning and AI are changing how we live and work, with serious consequences for those on the sidelines.
With this power and potential, there is a need to build capacity and infrastructure (supporting ecosystem – including data literacy and local datasets) to take advantage of this technology for economic and social development in a competitive and demanding world. There is also a need to democratize this power and prevent misuse and abuse in order to protect people’s privacy and ensure a fair, responsible, transparent, and inclusive application of AI tools and technologies. Such an effort takes a collective approach in partnerships between various stakeholders and tends to be led by the government and governance institutions. Data governance ensures the availability, usability, integrity, quality, and security of data as an asset for fair, inclusive, and responsible use and benefit. Most of the leading countries in data technologies and AI have well-established visions, strategies, policies, and legislation, in addition to leadership and specialized bodies to advance economic and social good through data, analytics, and AI.
In Palestine, as we are still struggling with the third industrial revolution under difficult political and economic conditions, the fourth industrial revolution is already upon us, catching us in a situation of minimal readiness in terms of technical capacity, datasets, legal and regulatory frameworks, policies, and championship, let alone resources.* On the brighter side, there are some serious efforts being undertaken with some practical steps toward implementing digital transformation and electronic services. Draft strategies and policies in digital transformation, data protection, open data, AI, and data security are awaiting approval. Some open datasets are already published on the open data portal (www.opendata.ps), and practical steps toward electronic government services are under way with the commissioning of the government payment gateway and the new addressing system.
Despite these efforts and similar interventions by local and international entities (such as data literacy and data-science capacity building, open government partnerships, an open-data charter, and the open/global data barometer), data innovation and entrepreneurship are not on par, neither are the outputs from educational institutions. We remain consumers of tools created for other contexts or have become merely raw data, provided freely and willingly with little protection. Data quality, hoarding, and awareness are other pressing issues. Our life remains managed in the traditional way – summary stats and guesswork at best. This is not likely to take us any further. As the legendary engineer W. Edwards Deming put it, “Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.”
In order to gain a competitive advantage and rise to the existential challenges, we should speed up the approval of the required policies and legislation to ensure a fair and frictionless access to and use of data. As a young and reasonably educated nation under practical occupation and economic hardship, we stand to gain a lot from applying data and AI technologies to overcome restrictions, plan and manage resources, respond to emergencies, and counter information disorder. Data and AI technologies can also help enhance economic, health, educational, and social conditions and export technical capacity as data natives. The public, private, and NGO sectors, as well as the Palestinian diaspora, can partner for a free, prosperous Palestine where data and AI are core assets.
*For an overview of the four industrial revolutions, please consult “The Fourth Industrial Revolution” on the Encyclopedia Britannica website, available at https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Fourth-Industrial-Revolution-2119734.
‘Aww, THAT’s the ticket’, in the words of Studs Terkel—’a free, prosperous Palestine where data and AI are core assets’! Brilliant post.