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Protect the Connected - Smart Cities, Data Analytics and Privacy in India

PULAK GHOSH, Professor of Quantitative Methods and Information Systems at IIM-B speaks to BWSC about the role of data analytics and GIS in powering smarter cities

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Pulak Ghosh
Pulak Ghosh

PULAK GHOSH, Professor of Quantitative Methods and Information Systems at IIM-Bangalore, is the only expert from India to be appointed to the Data Privacy Advisory Group – Global Pulse – the UN Secretary General’s Big Data innovation initiative. Recently included as the only academician in a list of India’s Top 10 most influential analytics leaders, he spoke to BWSC about the role of data analytics and GIS in powering smarter cities. Pulak Ghosh               BW Smart Cities: What is the Data Privacy Advisory Group’s role in the evolution of the dialogue on privacy? Pulak Ghosh: It’s an honor to represent India in the United Nations Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel. The post-2015 Development Agenda has called for a data revolution for improved accountability and decision-making. The UN Global Pulse is the flagship innovation initiative of the UN Secretary-General on big data. Its vision is to create an environment in which big data is being used safely and responsibly as a public good while strengthening the overall understanding of how privacy-protected analysis of big data can contribute to sustainable development. My role is to lend expertise toward the development of guidelines and practices that mitigates risks associated with privacy in big data analytics; determining how it can be used for responsible social value creation; and participating in the ongoing privacy dialogue and engaging in a privacy outreach campaign. BWSC: The Indian Government has set out to build 100 smart cities– transforming the country’s urban landscape with the help of technology and resource optimisation. What role do you see for big data and analytics in this vision of ‘sustainable’ transformation? PG: Big data and analytics offer a great opportunity to leverage information and communication technologies (ICT) for effective outcomes that can improve the lives of people. A smart city is an intelligent, information-powered city that promotes smart living. From a consumer or resident’s point of view, who is probably the highest stake holder, this depends on a plethora of things like healthcare facilities, entertainment, open spaces, transportation, waste management and education. How can one provide and sustain all these facilities over time? Also, since these related facilities generate and use large amounts of data, how can this data interact and fulfill the need to provide real-time solutions? By mining these diverse data sets from different platforms a city can run more efficiently and cost-effectively. A smart city will harness data from billions of devices and sources like fire alarms, digital surveillance, motion sensors, transport services management, disaster management and energy saving mechanisms, to name a few. These can sense, communicate, compute and combine information across platforms and combine it with the data generated by human responses as well. Trend analysis can facilitate faster and better-informed decision making in real-time, to improve savings, improve emergency responses and manage things like traffic and transport with optimal use of location and time information with the help of improved GIS systems. BWSC: What are some of the areas where you feel India can harness the power of data analytics to address challenges like those posed by the demand for affordable healthcare, universal education, better disaster management and public safety? PG: The use of big data for policy analytics is the need of the hour and it is becoming mainstream. This development brings much hope for social value creation where decisions are backed by quantified fact findings. For example, floods affect thousands across India every year, compounded by the spread of disease and lack of proper rehabilitation, complaints about slow relief and lack of coordination between various government departments. We can use mobile data at the aggregate level and analytics techniques from Geo-Spatial Information mapping to map the movement of people during disasters to facilitate the setting up of medical camps, coordinate food drops and even predict areas likely to be affected by the spread of disease. In healthcare, given the general ignorance about diseases and their adverse health outcomes, patients’ data can be used for predictive analytics and help create check-up alerts; predict the status of disease markers for advance alerts and help rural hospitals overcome resource constraints. Big data can be used to reduce crime in a city with the help of historical data that can help develop predictive analytics for vulnerable places and traffic congestion, for example, to optimise police patrolling. BWSC: What role must industry play? PG: Smart cities offer a huge investment opportunity, as the government is constrained by limitations in technology innovation, operating paradigms and in developing analytics strategies. Industry can improve efficiencies and lower costs. BWSC: Geo-spatial analysis and the potential it holds for urban design, mapping, planning or even emergency response systems, for example, is a key area of interest when we talk about smart cities. How can we optimise the opportunities it presents? PG: India is heterogeneous country, right down to its smallest locality. A GIS mapping system can be very helpful in planning and executing emergency systems, among other things. GIS systems facilitate the electronic management of spatial data and its visualisation. Add to this the dimension of ‘time’. Taken together, a spatio-temporal pattern or trend mining is an extremely integral part of smart cities. A smart city with properly coded spatio-temporal data can be used to provide various solutions like dynamic parking areas, street names and numbering, retail studies, property asset management and development monitoring, to name a few. BWSC: What are some of the regulatory or policy lacunae that you feel the Indian government needs to address to promote more responsible use of the large repositories of data that it collects and generates, while ensuring its citizens’ right to privacy? PG: The government should first make citizens aware of the various ways their information can be used, toward promoting responsible use. We first need to bridge this gap. While it is true that to provide better services we need more information, it is also true that we need to use this information with responsibility. Citizens should know what information is being collected and why. We also need to develop a better mechanism for ‘anonymising’ data. We should make sure that data does not go out of the larger repository and that all the analysis is done within that framework without isolating data. No analysis should be done that singles out identified individuals. Any output of the analysis should only be made available to the relevant, approved agencies. The lack of proper data is another issue, with poor capturing of customer demographics. We have a long way to go before we can get to another problem, which is the appreciation of advanced modeling. Lack of manpower, training and collaboration between industry, government and academia are other gaps. Finally, we need to understand that analytics is not IT!