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Big opportunities: In Trinidad and Tobago, exploring how Big Data can build "A Smarter Future"


Graphic banner shows a collage of images, including a female doctor between a woman and man holding laptop computers, with graphics of buildings, bus, tickets and map drop pin.
Photo: Adrian Ferrette

Few Caribbean countries have the digital footprint that Trinidad and Tobago does. The country’s virtual cavalry has become so well known that they’ve been dubbed, ‘Trini Twitter.’ 

These clicks, calls and swipes could be a gold mine for local policymakers trying to improve the arrival times and routes of public transportation buses or combat the spread of fake news.  

With this opportunity in mind, the UN in Trinidad and Tobago brought together more than 1,100 people to hear from leading lawmakers, private sector telecommunications companies, global tech companies, data scientists and academia at the country’s first Big Data Forum on 1 and 2 December, on the theme of “A Smarter Future: Exploring Big Data Opportunities for T&T.”  

Here are six key takeaways from the forum.  

1. “The world needs common ground rules for Big Data privacy,” said Faris Al-Rawi, Attorney General of Trinidad and Tobago. 

Caption: Faris Al-Rawi, Attorney General of Trinidad and Tobago

Photo: Courtesy Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago.

A person’s movements from one place to the next are tracked using their mobile phone signal, and the threat of data leaks, data hacks, and privacy breaches has become a cross-border problem. So said Trinidad and Tobago’s Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs, Faris Al-Rawi. 

“There is a lot of merit in a consistent international standard that can be applied,” Al-Rawi said. “But to avoid the vagaries of law and the collision of law, it is a place where we must agree upon ground rules and ground principles so we can all agree on the different zones. There is no better an entity to host that kind of forum than the United Nations by way of resolution.” 

2. “Big Data can be harnessed without necessarily investing significant resources,” said Dr. Lila Rao-Graham. 

Caption: Dr. Lila Rao-Graham

Photo: Courtesy UWI Mona

“Sometimes we use the examples of the Amazons and Netflix and people say, ‘Oh, these are large corporations, rich, have a lot of resources,’” said Dr. Lila Graham-Rao. But private sector companies already own much of the region’s Big Data—they just don’t know how to unlock its potential. So says a study conducted by the Mona School of Business and Management at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Jamaica, which found that 80% of companies believe they have valuable customer data, yet nearly 70% of them have no strategy to exploit its value. (Study by Dr. Maurice McNaughton, Dr. Lila Rao-Graham and Dr. Suzana Russell.) Added Dr. Rao-Graham, “We have to really demonstrate to the key stakeholders that these initiatives and the value of Big Data can be harnessed without necessarily investing significant resources.”  

3. “Big Data can improve governance and accountability,” said Allyson West, Trinidad and Tobago Minister of Public Administration and Digital Transformation. 

Caption: Allyson West, Trinidad and Tobago Minister of Public Administration and Digital Transformation

Photo: Courtesy Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago

Allyson West has a tight deadline to meet. The Minister of Public Administration and Digital Transformation for Trinidad and Tobago said, “The ministry is in the process of developing and implementing a single digital identity for every citizen within the next two years.” Her main objective is to break down silos between the databases of individual ministries and agencies, so data can be shared across all government systems. The country’s prime minister, Dr. Keith Rowley, announced in November that the government wants to revitalise the capital city through inner-city transportation routes, traffic management, and new housing developments. West said the digitisation project will lay the foundation for the modern infrastructure of a ‘smart city.’  

4. “Opportunities for Big Data in complex development evaluations,” said Dr. Michael Bamberger, Senior Fellow at the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation. 

Caption: Dr. Michael Bamberger, Senior Fellow at the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation

Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Bamberger

“It is now becoming possible to model the complexity of the economic, political, socio-cultural, demographic and climate environment within which programmes are designed and implemented,” said Dr. Michael Bamberger. That is made possible in part by advances in data collection and analysis, artificial intelligence, and other fields.“Previously,” he added, “the data and analytical requirements meant that most current evaluations have adopted simple linear pre-test/post-test comparison group designs which have largely ignored the complex real-world environment in which programmes operate.” 

5. “Don’t fear the use of Big Data to measure effectiveness,” said Dr. Lennise Baptiste, evaluation consultant. 

Caption: Dr. Lennise Baptiste, evaluation consultant

Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Baptiste

“In our region, I’ve encountered that evaluation is something to be feared, we have people who get very defensive,” said evaluation consultant Dr. Lennise Baptiste. “Evaluation is still seen as ‘very onerous’ and an ‘add-on.’ In our region we still suffer from low levels of buy-in at the leadership level.”

She said data is often used to analyse individual projects or programmes, instead of longer-term assessments of development strategies in areas such as education and poverty alleviation. She suggested that more funding for evaluations should be made available as part of project and government budgets. 

6. “Social media sentiments can help shape policy,” said Robert Kirkpatrick, UN Global Pulse Executive Director. 

Caption: Robert Kirkpatrick, UN Global Pulse Executive Director

Photo: Courtesy of UN Global Pulse

“There are many types of data that can be aggregated and anonymised that do not require sacrificing privacy, and can be used for social development,” said Robert Kirkpatrick, Executive Director of UN Global Pulse, the innovation arm of the UN that applies Big Data to humanitarian and national development solutions, with the help of companies who allow access to their data.“There is a real opportunity now to collect information from [social media] content,” he explained. “Why parents do or do not intend to vaccinate children, attitudes to women in the workplace, discrimination against minorities — these are all topics we have worked with partners over the UN system, and it works.” 

 

Produced and written by UN Trinidad and Tobago, with editorial support from Paul VanDeCarr, Development Coordination Office. To learn more about the work taking place in Trinidad and Tobago, visit the Multi-Country Office website at https://trinidadandtobago.un.org/.

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