Can data save the world?: Experts discuss how statistics can help to solve some of our biggest challenges

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Data from satellite imagery and radars can provide information about deforestation, global warming, and help to end poverty by identifying those who need help. (Shutterstock Getty)
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Data from satellite imagery and radars can provide information about deforestation, global warming, and help to end poverty by identifying those who need help. (Shutterstock Getty)
Updated 11 November 2018
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Can data save the world?: Experts discuss how statistics can help to solve some of our biggest challenges

  • Connections between the data community and political decision-makers are critical to realize the transformative power of data
  • Figures improve for middle-income countries where knowledge is more widespread and where close to 92 percent of people are identified

DUBAI: The idea of almost 2,000 statisticians meeting to talk about data, as they did at the recent UN World Data Forum in Dubai, is enough to make anyone’s eyes glaze over, but it would be foolish to ignore the important conversations they are having about the power of data to help solve some of the world’s biggest challenges, from poverty to global warming.
For instance, data from satellite imagery and radars can tell us about glaciers melting, deforestation and the state of algae in our oceans.
The potential of data to help with sustainable development was discussed in Dubai last month, along with how to ensure all individuals are accounted for in data collection and how to leverage new technologies. The event was the first in the region, following its first meeting in Cape Town in 2017.
Although the forum is only in its second year, progress has been made with the UN leading work globally through working groups on developing tools, governing systems and the principles that deal with issues of open data and data privacy, including the use of private-sector data.
“We live during a time of unprecedented challenge, but equally unprecedented and massive opportunity,” said Amina Mohammed, deputy secretary-general of the UN. “Our blueprint for addressing these challenges and seizing the opportunities is the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development. But to achieve the 17 Sustainable Goals (SDGs), we will need more and better data. With accurate, representative, inclusive and disaggregated data, we can understand the challenges we face and identify the most appropriate solutions for sustainable development.”
The SDGs were adopted by the UN to end poverty and protect the planet, including areas such as climate change, economic inequality, innovation, sustainable consumption, peace and justice.
The forum looked at how data can play a crucial role in saving and improving lives, whether in disaster preparedness and early warning systems, providing job opportunities for students or educating women about laws protecting them against discrimination. “It can strengthen trust in public institutions and unveil new opportunities,” Mohammed said. “But while it is clear that the data revolution is having an enormous impact, it has not benefited everyone equally.”
Since 1970, natural disasters have affected the lives of more than 460 million people in Africa, many of who could have been saved with better data and forecasting, according to Mohammed. In more than two thirds of countries, there is also a lack of gender disaggregated data on violence against women, which would allow experts to uncover patterns, and consequently, tackle the issue more efficiently.
All these issues work toward achieving the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. “We are nearing the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs, integrating all three dimensions of sustainability — economic, social and environmental — that will guide international development efforts and national policy through 2030,” said Liu Zhenmin, under-secretary-general for the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. “To do so, it is essential to have relevant, timely, open and disaggregated data, which requires that all communities represented today fulfill a critical role and find ways to work across different domains and create partnership and synergies.”
Three years into the 2030 Agenda, Zhenmin said that national data can be used to help implement and monitor it.
“The unprecedented number of new initiatives and approaches for the improvement of data production and utilization raises the importance of data and statistics for the full implementation of the 2030 Agenda,” he said.
According to Mahmoud Mohieldin, senior vice president for the 2030 Development Agenda at the World Bank, “leaving no one behind” is an aspirational objective that must be translated into action by finding out how many people have not been accounted for. “The figures are very worrying,” he said. “For the low-income countries, we have no clue about services and support to around 40 percent of the population because they don’t have any kind of identification. As far as the official records, they don’t exist.”
The number is 6 percent higher for women in those countries, creating significant discrepancy in the field. Figures improve for middle-income countries where knowledge is more widespread and where close to 92 percent of people are identified. In upper middle-income countries, the number reaches almost 97 percent.
“Technology today is really helpful, and I’ve seen great transformation in identification when it has good policy and leadership,” Mohieldin said. “For the new digital economy, there is no way for the public to get access to services or to be part of the new economy without identification, and that identification needs to be electronic, secured and supported by systems. It’s the new DNA – you need better data systems, secured networks and artificial intelligence mastering the new codes and languages of the future.”
Being able to analyze an increasing amount of data is becoming a race against time. “When we look at the SDGs, it’s a challenge and if we don’t have systems to read this data, crunch it and give us advice in real time, we are losing this race,” said Omar Al-Olama, UAE Minister for Artificial Intelligence.
“The second challenge is that we need to be informed on a real-time basis, second by second, and deploying these systems in a way that the data actually (pools) directly into the AI algorithm or system would allow us to take much more informed decisions. We can leverage technology for us to take much more insightful decisions and to achieve the SDGs in the time frame set.”
He spoke of data shaping the future of our planet. “When it comes to data and new platforms, no one has it right and we’re all experimenting together,” Al-Olama said. “We also need to increase data and technology literacy across our companies and governments. People need to understand why it’s important for us to ride this wave to control systems in the future.”
There are currently 350,000 organizations worldwide collecting data for their areas of interest. But with the rise and inevitable evolution of cloud computing, opportunities have emerged for information-sharing and bringing data together from various systems. “We’re already starting to see evidence of that, not just for professionals, but also appropriate access for the public and interested parties,” said Clint Brown, director of product engineering at ESRI. “Systems are coming alive, computing power is becoming available and these cloud systems can do some amazing things.”
He gave the example of the entire Landsat imagery collection going back to 1970s, which is now available online for processing. “They’re huge datasets so we should think as a priority how do we work together, and make data and open up access in appropriate ways,” he added. “This opportunity for many people to participate is upon us.”
As the world prepares to take in an abundance of data in the near future, improved information systems, infrastructure and support in analysis will be needed. “Data and the statistical community are placed at the heart of driving the SDGs Agenda, which is a big responsibility that’s been given to all of us,” said Harpinder Collacott, executive director of Development Initiatives, an independent international organization that focuses on the role of data in driving poverty eradication and sustainable development. “What we do with that responsibility is really going to be critical in the implementation of the global goals.”
She said the voice of policy-makers, from national to sub-national, was particularly relevant in the field. “I’m not sure how much of it we will hear at the forum,” she said. “But it’s their needs that have to be driving the investments around the data that we produce so that they can make the right decisions and put in place the right policies and approaches to really implement the SDG agenda.”
Connections between the data community and political decision-makers are critical to realize the transformative power of data. “Data has to move beyond just improving data systems to improving people’s lives,” she added. “So we need to demonstrate that action pretty quickly, which is a challenge because we’re nearly a quarter of the way through the SDG agenda already and we need to think about how we are using the data that is already available — and we have huge amount — so we can start to spearhead some action and improve data systems, governance and interoperability as we go forward.”


Elon Musk unveils underground tunnels, offers rides to VIPs

Elon Musk, co-founder and chief executive officer of Tesla Inc., arrives in a modified Tesla Model X electric vehicle during an unveiling event for the Boring Co. Hawthorne test tunnel in Hawthorne, south of Los Angeles, on December 18, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 19 December 2018
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Elon Musk unveils underground tunnels, offers rides to VIPs

  • The tunnel is just a test to prove the technology works and could one day cure traffic
  • For the privately funded test tunnel, Musk acquired a tunnel-boring machine that had been used in a San Francisco Bay Area project and put it down a shaft in a parking lot at the SpaceX headquarters

LOS ANGELES: Elon Musk unveiled his underground transportation tunnel on Tuesday, allowing reporters and invited guests to take some of the first rides in the revolutionary albeit bumpy subterranean tube — the tech entrepreneur’s answer to what he calls “soul-destroying traffic.”
Guests boarded Musk’s Tesla Model S and rode along Los Angeles-area surface streets about a mile away to what’s known as O’Leary Station. The station, smack dab in the middle of a residential neighborhood — “basically in someone’s backyard,” Musk says — consists of a wall-less elevator that slowly took the car down a wide shaft, roughly 30 feet (9 meters) below the surface.
The sky slowly fell away and the surprisingly narrow tunnel emerged.
“We’re clear,” said the driver, who sped up and zipped into the tunnel when a red track light turned green, making the tube look like something from space or a dance club.
The car jostled significantly during the ride, which was bumpy enough to give one reporter motion sickness while another yelled, “Woo!“
Musk described his first ride as “epic.”
“For me it was a eureka moment,” he told a room full of reporters. “I was like, ‘This thing is going to damn well work.’“
He said the rides are bumpy now because “we kind of ran out of time” and there were some problems with the speed of his paving machine.
“It’ll be smooth as glass,” he said of future systems. “This is just a prototype. That’s why it’s a little rough around the edges.”
The demo rides were also considerably slower — 40 mph (64 kph) — than what Musk says the future system will run at: 150 mph (241 kph). Still, it took only three minutes to go just over a mile from the beginning to the end of the tunnel, the same amount of time it took to accomplish a right-hand turn out of the parking lot and onto a surface street even before the height of Los Angeles’ notorious rush-hour traffic.
The tunnel is just a test to prove the technology works and could one day cure traffic.
Tuesday’s reveal comes almost two years to the day since Musk announced on Twitter that “traffic is driving me nuts” and he was “going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging.”
“I am actually going to do this,” he added in response to initial skepticism, a Tweet that was blown up and posted near the entrance to the tunnel for Tuesday’s event, along with other Musk tweets like, “Defeating traffic is the ultimate boss battle.”
The tweets were a nod to Musk’s sense of humor. Just after announcing he was creating a tunnel, he began The Boring Company, tongue in cheek intentional. Since his announcement, Musk has only revealed a handful of photos and videos of the tunnel’s progress.
On Tuesday, he explained for the first time in minute detail just how the system, which he simply calls “loop,” could work on a larger scale beneath cities across the globe. Autonomous, electric vehicles could be lowered into the system on wall-less elevators the size of two cars. Such elevators could be placed almost anywhere cars can go.
A number of autonomous cars would remain inside the system just for pedestrians and bicyclists. Once on the main arteries of the system, every car could run at top speed except when entering and exiting.
“It’s much more like an underground highway than it is a subway,” he said. “It’s not like you’re going through a whole series of stops. Nope, the main arteries will be going super fast, and it’s only when you want to get off the loop system that you slow down.”
Musk said he scrapped his previous plan to run the cars on platforms called skates. Instead, the cars would have to be fitted with specially designed side wheels that pop out perpendicular to the car’s regular tires and run along the tunnel’s track. The cost for such wheels would be about $200 or $300 a car, Musk said.
He said tunnels are the safest place to be in earthquakes — sort of like a submarine during a hurricane is safest beneath the surface — and addressed other concerns such as the noise and disruption of building the tunnels, which he completely dismissed. When workers bored through the end of the test tunnel, for instance, the people in the home 20 feet (6 meters) away “didn’t even stop watching TV.”
“The footsteps of someone walking past your house will be more noticeable than a tunnel being dug under your house,” he said,
Musk said it took about $10 million to build the test tunnel, a far cry from the $1 billion per mile his company says most tunnels take to build.
Musk explained just how he’s cutting costs. Measures include improving the speed of construction with smarter tools, eliminating middlemen, building more powerful boring machines, and instead of hauling out all the dirt being excavated, Musk is turning them into bricks and selling them for 10 cents.
He reiterated the simplicity of all his ideas.
“No Nobel Prize is needed here,” he said. “It’s very simple.”
And he’s not doing it for the money, he said, adding that it’s for the greater good.
“Traffic is a blight on everyone’s life in all cities,” he said. “I really think this is incredibly profound. Hopefully that is coming across.”
Steve Davis, head of The Boring Company, said the interest in the tunnel systems has been significant — anywhere from five to 20 calls a week from various municipalities and stakeholders.
One project Musk is planning on, known as the Dugout Loop, would take Los Angeles baseball fans to Dodger Stadium from one of three subway stations. Another would take travelers from downtown Chicago to O’Hare International Airport. Both projects are in the environmental review phase.
The Boring Company canceled its plans for another test tunnel on Los Angeles’ west side last month after a neighborhood coalition filed a lawsuit expressing concerns about traffic and disruptions from trucks hauling out dirt during the boring process.
For the privately funded test tunnel, Musk acquired a tunnel-boring machine that had been used in a San Francisco Bay Area project and put it down a shaft in a parking lot at the SpaceX headquarters.
Already on Tuesday, Musk’s representatives unveiled a new tunnel-boring machine they say they hope to have online soon, one that can bore four times faster than the one they’ve been using.
Musk’s vision for the underground tunnels is not the same as another of his transportation concepts known as hyperloop. That would involve a network of nearly airless tubes that would speed special capsules over long distances at up to 750 mph (1,200) kph), using a thin cushion of air, magnetism and solar power.
The loop system is designed for shorter routes that wouldn’t require the elimination of air friction, according to The Boring Company.