We should Invest in Data not Infrastructure – Dr. Uyi, IBM

Dr. Uyi Stewart, a US-based Nigerian leading data scientist and IBM Distinguished Engineer/Chief Data Scientist with 10 patents in the use of advanced analytics was in the country last week as guest Speaker at the launch of Data Science Nigeria, a Corporate Social Responsibility initiative by Bayo Adekanmbi to mentor and raise young Nigerians to become datapreneurs. Dr. Uyi in this interview considers data as a way out of the current challenges. Excerpts.

In your presentation, you seem to say data is the solution, how?

We have a lot of challenges as a nation whether it’s in the public sector, healthcare, agriculture, financial inclusion or education across every walk of life. Even in Lagos, look at mobility, our ability to travel from one place to the other across all sectors of our life and everyday living in Nigeria, we need to star to make smart decisions. A farmer needs to make smart decisions in other to farm better, a worker needs to make smart decisions in other to be able to reach work on time. Even parents need to make smart decisions about their finances so that they do not just stay at the same level. Across all these dimensions that I have talked about, the key is really the ability to have the right data, run the right kind of insight of the data, generate the right kind of support and then let the humans make the decision. Even the government also needs to be supported in order to make the right kind of decision for the population and that can only come from data. We can’t write policy on gut or emotions, we have to write policies based on data. So across every work of life data is valuable but the key is our ability to mine and analyse the data.

There is this challenge of accessing data, how do you manage the situation?

The key is the time to value. Let’s take a scenario, I have data, I am company X and you come to me and say: “Give me your data”. I am going to ask you: “What’s in it for me?”. I believe people are willing to share their data. I said earlier that innovation has to be two sides; it has to be business model and technology. We always go to them and say: “Give me your data, I want to build this App” without laying on the table what’s in it for them. If you can show what business model underlying what you’re doing and you can show value for the person you asking data from, you will get the data.

Why is it that we have the problem of data credibility, some of the data we have are not valid therefore coming up with applicable result becomes an issue, how do we resolve this?

That borders on data quality, actually they are two sides – data quality and data provenance. Provenance is that when I get the data, it can percolate all the way and be consistent without somebody changing it. These are issues that machine learning thankfully allows us to address. Even if you say: “I don’t want to go into machine learning”, there is something that is called crowdsourcing which is also an approach to do data quality. It’s inexpensive. What that does is that it brings people together to validate an imprint in a democratic way. All of us cannot agree to lie. So we need to focus on instruments either through technology or simple innovative ideas like crowdsourcing to ensure we have the right kind of data quality. It is central otherwise garbage in, garbage out.

How do we raise the next generation of datapreneurs?

The coming of Data Science Nigeria is really timely. In my presentation, I said Data Science Nigeria cannot do it alone. We all need to come together – IBM, Google, entrepreneurs, Journalists. When you write about it, you are actually socialising the community to become aware of the value of data. So, it’s all of us coming together and supporting this organization so long as they remain credible, we will be able to produce the next generation of data scientists.

You are a chief Scientist with IBM, USA, what motivated you into joining Data Science Nigeria?

I spent the last 5 years setting up the research lab in Kenya. I have seen that we really need to focus on using data to address our challenges and I have seen tremendous values that the research lab and data have brought to Kenya and East Africa. Now Nigeria is lagging behind. Example lies in the ease of doing business. Data can help us to provide a better outlook for investors to come into our country by simple use of data. At the end of the day, this is still my home and that is what motivates me. I have seen it work elsewhere and I want it to work here.

What is the key message in your presentation at the Data Science Nigeria?

The theme is “Leveraging Data Science to enable Nigeria leapfrog”; the message is that we have a unique opportunity right now to tap data and accelerate the transformation that is going on in Nigeria.

Your presentation supports investments in data, exploring data rather than the government’s focus on infrastructure; how do you reason data can bring about change rather than infrastructure?

Earlier I said Journalists have a role to play by taking some of the cases we cited before to show how data is helping elsewhere. Government is doing that because that is the only way they know. When you write about it they become aware of these new developments and the new changes. The other aspect is that I truly believe that innovation in data and data science will not come from government side, it will come from the private sector, that’s my belief. That is why we must support the Data Science Nigeria initiative. Its far reaching effect on the economy and Nigeria in general cannot be over emphasized.