| April 27, 2017
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Cover Story: Data Revolution

Cover Story: Data Revolution

A small army of Nepali tech geeks engineered a way to collect six terabyte of data in three months from 11 districts.
“We trained about 1,700 Nepali engineers on mobile data collection technology and deployed to 11 districts, collected 6.6 million photos of 750,000 houses and 3.6 million people just in about90 days,” says Nama Budhathoki, 47, founder of Kathmandu Living Labs (KLL).

 

After finishing his PhD in 2010, from University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign in crowd-sourced mapping and open data, Budhathoki decided to return Nepal in 2011 and immediately started mapping Kathmandu’s streets. He then founded KLL in 2013 and continued to expand the mapping work. KLL now has 15 full-time software engineers and civic technology experts, all Nepalis educated and trained in Nepal.

Then came the big earthquake in April 2015.

Immediately after the tragedy, Nama’s team set to work. KLL did a massive crowdsourcing to map damaged communities. Within the first 48 hours, more than 1,500 people from around the world had contributed to the project. Eventually, more than 8,000 volunteers participated in mapping Nepal’s earthquake hit districts.

The Nepal Army used the information provided by KLL to identify houses, people and communities that needed immediate attention. In a speech at Harvard University, Gaurav Shumsher Rana, then Army Chief of Staff, told, “crowd sourced data was used extensively and provided a new dimension to planning and direction of rescue and relief operations.” He credits KLL for providing data on victims’ needs and helped obtain high-resolution satellite map of earthquake hit districts, starting from the very next day of the big earthquake.

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KLL trained the engineers on technology for two days and the first batch of 127 of them was deployed to Dolakha in the first week of January 2016. The engineers were provided a tablet each and they used Housing Reconstruction Data (HRD Collect), an application, to get GPS location of houses, photos of damaged houses and the detailed socio-demographic information of each household. Then that information is directly uploaded to the Government Integrated Data Center at Singha Durbar. In areas with low Internet service, only text information would upload, and photos with bigger size would upload once better connection is found. The engineers went paperless.

It took more than three months for the KLL team to develop the system. Budhathoki says, “Many people think it is just a data collection app but developing a system to handle such a massive volume of data involves several technical challenges. We had to improve the application and fine tune the system on the go.”

The first set of data came to the server from Dolakha on January 10, 2016. Budhathoki’s team cheered and hugged.

All 1,700 engineers were deployed to 11 districts, except for Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur, by mid-February 2016.With over 6 terabyte of data collected so far, Budhathoki thinks that this is the biggest ever mobile data collection in the world in such a short time. The Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) managed the overall project with the help from Health Research and Social Development Forum (HERD) to recruit the engineers and UNOPs on logistics support.

Every engineer was paired up with a local social mobilizer in the process of collecting data. They had to reach each household in order to get GPS location, photo and other details of damaged houses. The KLL developed system also allowed the team in Kathmandu to monitor overall progress of the works as well as each engineer by the day in near real-time.
KLL’s office in Kathmandu had 10 people, working two shifts, from 6am to 10pm, to support the engineers on the ground on technical issues.
The data collection is now complete.

Sushil Gyawali, CEO of the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA), says that KLL was instrumental in developing and processing the data from the ground. “This shows Nepalis are also equally competent in carrying out complex and big technological operations in a very short time,” Gyawali said.    

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Nama Budhathoki


Budhathoki says their work is driven more by passion and zeal to contribute in building a solid foundation for a data-driven development. He proudly says that an all-Nepali team carried out the work for the project and feels proud of the whole technical team, along with IP Bastola and Dipesh Raj Sharma, who made outstanding contributions.

“This is an example of how government and non-government actors can work together and make otherwise impossible mission possible. This sends a powerful message to the world that we can carry out the best works here in Nepal,” Budhathoki says.

Budhathoki’s team had done a small-scale survey in Bharatpur, in collaboration with National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET), of 10,000 houses. “In principle, we had the clarity, but the team had never done the work in this massive scale.”

He believes this information could set the foundation for data-driven development in 11 districts hit hard by earthquake. The National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) is using the information only for its immediate need. The government can overlay roads, schools, businesses and communities in the existing data for informed decision in future.

Budhathoki feels this is the best time to innovate, excite communities and make effective use of technologies.