Making Data more Useful

Posted on Mar 16, 2015

When I shared the idea of the Front-End Class I’ll be teaching soon, Nama Budhathoki (the Executive Director of Kathmandu Living Labs) got really excited! He listened to my reasons for hosting the class (see last blog). But then, he said: that’s fine, but you aren’t getting to the substance of it. How will the projects of the class, and the training they receive, change Nepal? He is definitely a big thinker, and encouraged me to think about Data Usage as one of the problems we tackle in a small way.

On Data Usage

Screenshot of the bustime application I used to use to figure out when to get on the bus. The data collection needs for this app are intense, but just to show an example...

MTA Bustime

Certainly, Data Usage is a HUGE issue in Nepal. If you live in Nepal, what was the last time you used data to inform a decision? Let me describe a personal situation… When I was in New York, I used many data services daily: the weather forecast, maps to get around, the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s bus time application to see when to get on my bus. When I ordered things online, I entered my street address, and the package, or pizza, would just get to me. When I wanted friends to come over, I didn’t need to be on the phone constantly to tell them how to get to my house. This is a huge pain for any event planner in Nepal; having a get together means someone has to be on the phone giving directions for an entire afternoon.

The most poignant juxtaposition for me was a few weeks ago. I had just come out of a meeting in which a few of us were brainstorming ideas about how to get new municipalities in Nepal to have street addresses and numbers [1]. I checked my email, and found an email from Amazon, announcing that they were beginning 1 hour delivery service to doorsteps in New York. There is clearly a huge gap between what exists in Nepal today and what could be.

Making things better

Enough complaining; its time to try and fix things.

One of the aims of the class will include: How do we make data more accessible and more valuable in Nepal? How do we take currently available datasets, and make them fun, useful, playful? How do we set an example so that next time a big organization does their monitoring, they think about making the data rich and interactive rather than locking it in yet another glossy pdf report that three people read [2]?

The class is timely, because we have access to a few awesome datasets. The OpenStreetMap data in Nepal is amazingly rich in areas like Kathmandu, Bharatpur, and Pokhara. We have all of the data in, as well as a few others we have found through some hard digging. We can use those to make fun apps! Or create mechanisms where people contribute even more useful data! In crowd-sourced data environments like OpenStreetMap, these two phenomena are even complementary: the more we make data useful, the more data will actually be produced.

Here are a few ideas to get us started. I’m looking for more to ensure that this training really changes Nepal!

Some Ideas I will encourage people to develop in the class

  • A prominent organization combating human trafficking in Nepal is working on digitizing their process of reporting missing persons. Right now, border patrols have to wait for paper-based reports to get to them before they find out about people reported missing. They are in the process of making this process faster, so they can cut down the time between reporting and border patrols learning about the reports. This is literally life-saving work. One of their hurdles? Seeing the data in an easy-to-use, searchable, visual, format. So that’s one of the apps I’m hoping we’ll build. See mock-ups here, and please leave comments!

  • OpenStreetMap in Nepal has become quite awesome, and the level of detail is amazing! But not enough people know about the map, and we could always use more contributions regarding the things people care about. So, we’ve thought of a guessing game inspired by, that focuses on letting people guess the location of places in Kathmandu. Eventually, the idea is to let people define their own “challenges” of places for people to guess. This allows us to reach more people through a fun social game AND contribute to the OSM platform!

  • More Data, More Momos.

    My life’s motto: More Data, More Momos.

  • Momo khoi? A web app to find the closest (and best!) momo restaurant nearby. Why use a map if you are not finding momos? Why should we live in Kathmandu if we are not always stuffing our faces with momos? We’ll start by making a mobile-friendly web app and go from there.

  • Data Matching tool. One of the problems with datasets available in Nepal is being able to match data between datasets. This one is for the serious data nerds. Take a dataset of SLC pass rates in every school in Nepal. On OSM, we have the locations of all the schools within Kathmandu Valley. How can we match them so we can make cool visualizations? This tool will help people match it up!

Leave us some tips!

[1] – To our knowledge, the Kathmandu Municipality is the only area that has a physical street addressing and numbering system. Usage is not yet pervasive, but it has definitely made finding things much easier.
[2] – Did you know that nearly one-third of PDF reports published by the World Bank have never even been downloaded? And another 40% have been downloaded fewer than 100 times? That is fewer people than those of you reading this article. Trust me, my blog is NOT popular by any means. Source
[3] – And I’m certainly not the first. Sujeev Shakya actually highlights all of the lost work gone into glossy report making in his book Unleashing Nepal.