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Explainer: Is data the new oil in the GCC?

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Gulf Business‘s article that as an Explainer: Is data the new oil in the GCC? is a good snapshot of the present situation of that part of MENA countries.

We all know that ‘Big Oils’ management and petrol countries alike have underscored scientific research showing the link between burning fossil fuels and a dangerously heating planet. They’ve lobbied and funded reports to either downplay or deny the risks to the climate—and humanity—of using their products. It went on unabated until the advent of clean and accessibility to all the latest technological hard and software for a broad spectrum of commercial activities. 

Explainer: Is data the new oil in the GCC?

Technology has now become a key driver of economic growth in the GCC, with data already defining the region’s future, opines Maurits Tichelman, VP – Sales, Marketing, and Communications and GM – Global Markets and Partners, EMEA at Intel

Is the term ‘data is the new oil’ still relevant?
Yes, data has practically become the ‘new oil’. Data is playing a significant role as a crucial source of wealth for oil-rich nations and territories such as the GCC, which has historically been particularly dependent on oil as the main contributor to the GDP.

We are witnessing a significant shift from oil to data in the region as governments embark on strategic initiatives to diversify towards more knowledge-based and tech-driven economies. Data is already playing a key role in this transformation. A concrete example of this process could be autonomous driving. Autonomous vehicles run on data in the same way that today’s cars run on gasoline. Therefore, undoubtedly, data will be the new oil.ADVERTISING

In the GCC, oil has been crucial to economic growth. Will technology/data be able to provide the same level of economic prosperity?
Countries in the region are heavily investing in diversified industries such as technology, manufacturing, education, and healthcare, among others. As the Gulf states transform and diversify, the importance and impact of technology will take on an even greater role. Data is already defining the region’s future, complemented by mega projects planned with greater focus on smart infrastructure (smart cities), advanced telecoms services, and somewhat
accelerated by the rapid rise of remote learning and working due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Furthermore, technology has now become a key driver of economic growth, from providing goods and services efficiently, to optimising advanced technologies to help businesses and governments access natural resources that can benefit people. Additionally, increased efficiency of labour has improved productivity and profitability.

While we are producing ample amounts of data in the region, are we currently maximising its benefits?
We are surrounded by data and it continues to grow exponentially. According to estimates, in 2021 alone, there will be 74 zetabytes of generated data and it is expected to reach 149 zetabytes by 2024. As a result, the need to understand and optimise data has become even more significant as every business uses data to some extent. However, there is a lack of knowledge and skills in utilising the data to its full potential. With the rise of digitalisation, companies and governments across the region and worldwide are investing in digital transformation, a positive indication that more organisations are now realising the importance of data.

The Covid crisis has highlighted the importance of technology – but will it retain its relevance post-pandemic across industries? 
The pandemic has undeniably prompted companies to invest more in technology adoption across industries including healthcare, education, retail and real estate, among others. The use of innovation technology such as virtual medical/doctor consultation has helped people during lockdowns. The Covid crisis has forced organisations and governments to adapt and prepare better to tackle future calamities with the aid of technology.

Businesses have seen the advantages and have started deploying smart and intelligent technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) to improve safety standards and increase productivity. Thus, it is clear that technology has become an absolute necessity rather than a mere option; its relevance has never been so crucial and without a doubt the use and benefits will play a bigger role post-pandemic across industries locally, regionally and internationally.

What are the biggest challenges hindering tech adoption/data-driven growth in the region? 
Although organisations are implementing advanced technologies, the vast majority still operate on outdated and traditional models, which prevent them from utilising the benefits of the latest available technologies. Secondly, reluctance and resistance from employees in adopting technology poses challenges for companies. Lastly, a lack of skilled professionals is a key factor that has restricted organisations in the region from completing their digital transformation.

Looking ahead, GCC states are seeking to become global knowledge hubs. How can that journey be accelerated?
GCC governments are accelerating their digital transformation journeys with progressive strategies and initiatives. Smart Dubai, Dubai Data Strategy, Saudi Arabia’s The National Strategy for Digital Transformation and the Qatar Smart Program (TASMU) are examples of the regional commitment and ambition to explore all possibilities of technology and its impact on daily life and business. These strategies, roadmaps and ambitions are the key drivers and accelerators of their technological transformation journey.

Transforming small cities into smart cities

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Media India Group of New Delhi elaborates on Transforming small cities into smart cities, as seen by the SRMIST and TERRE Policy Centre. Here is the story that could well be of interest to our readers in the MENA region of the Gulf, where Indian Nationals residents make up the great majority of inhabitants.

The picture above is for illustration and is of The Economic Times.

Transforming small cities into smart cities: SRMIST & TERRE Policy

Collaboration to conserve environment

Dr S Ponnusamy, Registrar, SRM-IST (left); Dr Rajendra Shende, Chairman, TERRE Policy Centre (right)

In order to promote on-campus activities for environmental conservation and fulfil UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, SRM institute collaborates with TERRE Policy Centre.

SRM (Sri Ramaswamy Memorial) Institute of Science and Technology (SRMIST), Chennai, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with TERRE Policy Centre which is a non-profit organisation dedicated to United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“Our campus in Chennai is like a small city and our aim is to transform that small city to a smart city”, said Professor C Muthamizhchelvan, Vice-Chancellor of SRMIST. While speaking about signing the MoU with TERRE Policy Centre, he also said that collaborating with TERRE they would fulfil their ambition of making all their students and faculty future-ready and SDG-Ready’. “That is what I mean by smart”, he added.

SRMIST is a deemed university as well as an active member of a network of Higher Educational Institutes, called   Smart Campus Cloud Network (SCCN), launched by TERRE Policy Centre in 2017. The network is supported by UNESCO-Paris and India’s Ministry of Education through All India Council of Higher Technical Education (AICTE) and University Grant Commission (UGC).

This digital network of over 350 universities and colleges, including seven foreign universities, promotes the practical activities in the campus that contribute towards the United Nations SDGs. SCCN makes the campus a laboratory for SDGs. The network promotes ‘learning by doing’ within the campus.

In order to fulfil their objective, the network of universities encourages students as well as faculties to share the experiences of practical projects related to SDGs in the college campus. The projects deploy digital technologies like IoT (Internet of Thing), AI (Artificial Intelligence), cloud-networking, Machine-to-machine learning and BlockChain technology.

Apart from these, projects like energy efficiency, harnessing of renewable energy, waste to energy, zero-waste, green buildings, smart-grid, healthy sanitation, e-waste management, air pollution, zero-emission transport, conservation of biodiversity, ban on single-use plastic, water conservation, carbon neutrality, sustainable farming, digital agriculture are among other practices undertaken in the campus. Ideation and research on SDGs are also encouraged on the campus. The results of the practical work on the campus are shared across the universities globally through the digital cloud dashboard that TERRE has developed.

Apart from UNESCO other partners of SCCN are GORD (Gulf Organisation of Research and Development) in Qatar as well as several NGOs. TERRE also works closely with ECOSOC, UNEP, IUCN and UNFCCC.

“Through SCCN we aim to mainstream United Nations Global Goals (SDGs) in the education system where young minds are moulded”, Dr Rajendra Shende, Chairman of TERRE Policy Centre and former director of UNEP, tells Media India Group.

“The MoU has the overarching objective of skill development of the students for implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including making the campus Carbon Neutral,” he adds.

In addition to being a leading higher education and research, the institution has gained an international reputation in various fields and has evolved a comprehensive student-centric learning approach, SRM-IST has also signed carbon neutrality ledge, ‘Not Zero-Net Zero Pledge’ designed and monitored by TERRE under SCCN.

At present, SRM-IST aims to be South India’s regional hub of Smart Campus Cloud Network (SCCN). TERRE Policy Centre, through Smart Campus Cloud Network (SCCN), plans to provide overall guidance and mentoring to SRM-IST on United Nations SDGs and climate change issues

In order to inspire more institutions and organisations across the world, the success stories will be showcased on a number of network platforms including Discussion Fora on its website sccnhub.com. The progress of the activities would be monitored using smart technologies and will be visualised using a cloud platform and a real-time dashboard. The partnership with business, government and civil society would be the key axis around which this network will flourish. ‘Learning by Doing’ and ‘Accelerating by Sharing’ would be the key mantras that TERRE and SRMIST would be practising to train the students for the carbon-neutral future.

Middle Eastern countries ramp up their scientific publications

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Science‘s Middle Eastern countries ramp up their scientific publications by Jeffrey Brainard, at a time when they all seem to be still looking for a growth model especially needed in these times of pandemic. Here we have a whole region south and east of the Mediterranean whose elites had not been stranger to social mobilization and street politics in the past, presently sparing a little time to research better ways of life.

The picture above is for illustration and is of Al-Fanar Media.

Iran’s Sharif University of Technology has helped drive an increase in the country’s published scientific papers. MASOUD K/FLICKR/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (CC BY-SA)

After years of lagging scientifically, countries in the Middle East and North Africa have significantly boosted their share of scholarly articles in international journals—as well as citations to those papers—during the past 4 decades, the Clarivate analytics firm said last week. Further growth could occur if the region’s countries boost their low rate of scientific cooperation with each other, it said.

From 1981 to 2019, the region quadrupled its share of research articles and reviews to 8%; among regions and large countries, only China grew by more. Clarivate’s report, based on its Web of Science bibliometric database, notes the “outstanding relative growth” of papers from the Middle East and North Africa came despite international sanctions against Iran and violent conflicts in Iraq and elsewhere.

The report covers 19 countries stretching from Morocco to Iran, but only six accounted for 80% of the 150,000 papers by the region’s scholars in 2019: Egypt, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Tunisia.

Iran led the way with 188,163 papers from 2015 to 2019; its output from 2000 to 2019 rose 30-fold. (Despite reports of paper mills and fake peer reviews involving papers by Iranian authors, the study notes efforts in Iran to tame the problem). At least some of Saudi Arabia’s expansion may have come from non-Saudi researchers affiliated with Saudi institutions.

“The notion that science and technology are essential for economic and societal progress, one of the pillars of the current policy in the European Union, applies to [this] region as well,” said Henk Moed, editor-in-chief of Scholarly Assessment Reports, a journal that covers research metrics, who was not involved in the Clarivate report. “The valuable trends presented in the Clarivate report, therefore, have a certain predictive value for economic and political relations in the region, especially in the somewhat longer term, and provide evidence that Iran’s economic and political role in the region will only grow stronger in the years to come.”

Clusters of the region’s papers focused on sustainable development, including soil erosion, and other areas of applied science, Clarivate said.

These and other publications have attracted growing attention: In 2019, 15 of the 19 countries had a citation score higher than the world average (when adjusted for differences across scholarly disciplines); in 2000, almost all had been well below.

The region’s international collaborations also increased, with 45% of its papers reporting co-authors from other countries in 2019; most often, the co-authors were in the United States. By comparison, the percentage in Western Europe was 65%. Worldwide, articles with such collaborations tend to attract higher citations. But countries in the Middle East and North Africa collaborated little with each other: Only 5% of their articles in 2019 had a co-author from a different country within the region.

Skirting the challenge of bridging long-standing tensions within the region, the Clarivate report encourages the countries to forge closer research ties, which “could improve competitiveness between the region and the rest of the world by focusing on shared needs and priorities.” One mechanism for encouraging regional collaboration could be a joint research-funding organization, similar to that of the European Union, the report said. Focusing on research might also “create more robust educational and social transformation through human resource capacity.”

“This would do much,” the report concludes, to “visibly rebuild the international reputation of Islamic, Arab, Persian and Turkish learning and scholarship that sustained the Western world for centuries.”Posted in: 

Jeffrey Brainard

Jeffrey Brainard joined Science as an associate news editor in 2017. He covers an array of topics and edits the In Brief section in the print magazine. 

The Pros and Cons of Online University Learning

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With the unfortunate obligation to a general lockdown, University eLearning courses became necessary. Students staying at home are offered jam-packed features courses with control over their speed, language, theme, and media. Moreover, interactive content ensures comprehension, and eBook takeaways support the application of learning at home as well as in the workplace. In this context, the story of the Pros and Cons of Online University Learning by Haifaa M. Mussallam is worth reading.


A semester online had some pluses, including helpful new learning technologies. But the lack of face-to-face meetings was a disappointment (Photo: Frederic Cirou/PhotoAlto/Alamy).

Online learning has been a rollercoaster of emotions for me since it was introduced in my senior year at Effat University, in Saudi Arabia. As an introvert, I found it both a blessing and curse. The online fall semester of 2020 was a learning experience for both professors and students, as typing on a laptop replaced notebooks and pens, and face-to-face interactions gave way to professors with headsets on our computers or phone screens.

I like the fact that students and teachers alike have been forced to adapt to the new normal, and I’d say both sides have been pleasantly surprised by how well everyone has been able to push through and learn the best we can, both with the curriculum and technology.

I was also pleasantly surprised how the quality of education remained the same. But I am lucky to be in a major, English Literature, that doesn’t require practical work like architecture, computer sciences, or engineering.

Still, I can confidently say that I have received the same quality of education I would have received on campus. And the transition to online learning went smoothly for me, thanks to the flexibility of being able to attend from wherever there is an Internet connection and being able to log into classes using a range of devices, such as a laptop or even a cellphone.

Moreover, the fact that lectures are recorded on the learning platform Blackboard Collaborate is an added bonus that I am certain many students are grateful for. Even if a student misses a lecture for one reason or other, all they have to do is replay the recorded session to catch up. This is a double-edged sword, however, because it can cause students to take fewer notes in real time and rely on the recordings.

New Technological Resources Are a Plus

Another added benefit of online learning is that new technological resources are being used to enhance learning, which in my opinion is long overdue.

Another added benefit of online learning is that new technological resources are being used to enhance learning, which in my opinion is long overdue. Prior to the pandemic, most students and faculty members depended on the old-fashioned way, using PowerPoint slides and submitting papers in person.

Although slides remain, platforms that were previously unheard of are now at the center of many teachers’ online curricula. One example is the digital educational platform BlinkLearning. Students are able to purchase books, open them via the platform’s website and do the homework assigned by their professors. I can personally attest to the effectiveness of the platform as I am using it myself this current semester to learn German.

A downside to online learning is the lack of face-to-face interactions, and not being physically on campus takes away from the typical college experience. Another negative aspect in Saudi Arabia is that some female students are too shy to turn on their cameras. This is understandable as lectures are recorded, but it does diminish opportunities for the professor to feel a genuine interaction with his or her students. (See a related article, “Universities in Qatar Help Students Stay Connected in a Remote-Learning World.”)

Other facilities on campus have not been used since the pandemic began, such as study rooms, the university’s abundant library, and restaurants. (See a related article, “Pandemic Casts a Shadow on Extracurricular Activities for Egyptian Students.”)

It cannot be denied that some aspects of college life were taken for granted by students and faculty members. I miss passing my classmates or professors in the hallways and giving them a nod or smile. Another downside, other than the lack of physical contact, is that due to the absence of facial expressions, professors tend not to take pauses for questions or discussions while giving lectures. The pandemic has taken away the possibility for spontaneous discussions in a virtual classroom, as both sides are looking at the finish line more than they would have on a physical campus.

Mixed Feelings About a Virtual Graduation

Being so close to my own finish line, with my graduation approaching in a few months, I am excited and disappointed. Any future graduate will surely experience a mix of emotions, but a virtual graduation causes its own surge of feelings, since YouTube is the center of the stage we will stand on, rather than the university’s auditorium. 

Although no plans for graduation have yet been announced at my university, there is perhaps the off-chance that there will be a real physical graduation ceremony.

The university has sent emails about a graduation photoshoot to me and other future graduates, and some of my fellow classmates have participated, but I was not interested due to my lack of love for cameras.

Overall, the learning experience online has been a success and I am grateful for all the effort put in by my professors, the administration of universities across Saudi Arabia, the Ministry of Education, and information technology departments everywhere for making the connection between us all possible and stable.

Haifaa M. Mussallam is a 23-year-old published poet and almost a graduate in English literature from Effat University, in Jeddah.

(See a related article, “Covid-19’s Second Wave Leaves Plans for Resuming On-Campus Studies in Doubt.”)

(See a related article, “Ajman University Caps a Challenging Year with a Drive-Through Graduation.”)

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TRANSCEND in Beware the Experts!

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TRANSCEND Media Service in Beware the Experts! by Naresh Jotwani tells us how ‘The world – or at least a large and dominant part of it! – is increasingly being run by so-called “experts”.’

EDITORIAL, 30 Nov 2020

The world – or at least a large and dominant part of it! – is increasingly being run by so-called “experts”, sometimes dubbed honestly as “technocrats”. Their fields of “expertise” are many, and that list is growing steadily longer. The fact is, universities and research institutions must be seen to be “torch bearers” of progress, values, knowledge, scientific inquiry, freedom, justice … or whatever other words sound good in a speech or on a website. In vicious competition for student fees, research funds, private donations and government grants, every institution must proclaim “excellence” – somehow, anyhow.

As in any other field of human endeavour, opportunities for gaming the system are many. The standard, time-tested techniques of cronyism, mutual back-scratching, feudalism, deception, hyperbole, playing to the gallery … et cetera … run rampant. These techniques are at work incessantly and brazenly, around the world, to further the careers of aggressive and ambitious old-timers, mid-lifers and new entrants.

For so-called “experts”, however, one other very special trick is also available. The ability to define ever newer areas of “expertise” and “challenges” offers an easy option not available in other areas of human endeavour. As more and more people acquire Ph.D.s and fight for success and prominence, they build ever smaller boxes around their work. Each such group dubs its small box “the next big thing”, writes a few silly papers, and makes a big show of “fake it till you make it”. If one such “bold academic initiative” does not work out too well, another appears soon with a different flavour, another catchy label, and yet another round of hype. Thus the spectacle goes on from “progress” to “more progress”.

If a manufacturer claims to have developed a better quality of soap, potential customers have right to test the product, verify the claims and decide whether to spend their hard-earned money on the new soap. Validation by prospective customers is a crucial and essential step when a new product is sought to be introduced to society.

With new and unproven academic claims, however, ordinary citizens of the society have no right to opine. This is a tragic, anomalous and therefore also unstable situation, because the public policy burdens of new theories fall almost wholly on ordinary citizens. Any intelligent citizen can study a subject and formulate a cogent opinion, but a kind of intimidating “caste system” dubs large sections of population as being incapable of questioning theories and policies which impact their lives; and thus honest public debate is avoided.

This powerful new technique of deception is based on building ever narrower boxes of specialization. Instead of thinking out of a box, these “experts” build smaller and smaller boxes around whatever they are capable of thinking after twenty plus years of “formal” education; they are masters only of intellectual fencing and pointless one-upmanship.

Ordinary people do not question these “experts” because they have naive faith in the “hallowed halls of scholarship”, being unaware of the base emotions rampant inside.

One root cause of the problem seems to be that “well-being of fellow citizens” is not even a valid subject in academia! While each “expert” is fierce in defending his or her turf, what should be the central, common denominator – the well-being of society – receives at best a passing mention in support of some fashionable theory.

***

Examples can easily be cited of “specialist experts” bringing confusion to public debate, and often also immense misery to public life. This happens either because they disagree among themselves, or because they have in mind “private” goals, not public good.

Just a few prominent examples are given here, in what should never be mistaken for an exhaustive list.

  1. The handling of the Covid 19 pandemic is a recent and glaring example. Experts in virology, public health, epidemiology, pharmaceuticals, practicing doctors, computer modellers – in short, just about every Tom, Dick and Harry – wanted to show how brilliant they were. Naturally, politicians joined in too, following the principle of “not letting any crisis go waste”. Who suffered?
  2. Institutions such as IMF are staffed by allegedly “top notch” celebrity economists – ever so articulate, ever so politically savvy. Today they recommend unrestricted money printing for one group of countries, and unrelenting austerity for another. Plenty of “fuzz factor” is hidden in all economic theories, however, to spin either approach as being right.

The sad political reality, however, cannot be found in any textbook. The first group of countries are powerful, highly developed CREDITOR countries, while the second group has impoverished DEBTOR countries. Excess money with the creditors can always be made to earn juicy returns from economies struggling under debt burdens. All this makes very good business sense for the former – the CREDITOR countries – but should economists take sides in such cruel games of global usury?

Within any economy, there is a huge divide between ground reality and the official statistics. Statistics allow politicians and “expert” economists to congratulate themselves and play the endless game of blame-passing. People’s well-being goes by default.

  1. Heartless decisions on bringing “democracy”, “freedom”, “progress” et cetera to other countries are routinely made by “experts” or “technocrats”. In reality, these people are no more than greedy, self-serving hatchet-men for ruthless power-grabbers.
  2. Financial skulduggery in the name of capitalism engages the brightest minds of a society and the most powerful computers. Tactics such as high frequency front-running and algorithmic betting bring no benefit to agriculture, or manufacturing, or education, or health care or public well-being. Indeed, a few months ago, this author had the distinct impression that Donald Trump was testing and possibly teasing stock market investors by alternately making on-again, off-again comments about the possible trade deal with China.
  3. As specialists, lawyers are a breed apart, tireless masters of evasion, innuendo and hair-splitting; truth, well-being or justice be damned. Climbing one level further up the food chain of corruption, many lobby ceaselessly for laws which subvert the public good.
  4. Much is being made of the ongoing revolution in artificial intelligence (AI). A lot of it is hype, and much of it is ineffective and harmless. For example, if an AI bot sends me mostly uninteresting pieces of a news-feed, I will not bother to complain. Serious difficulties with AI will show up when it is applied in critical sectors such as health care or policing.

***

Wherever we turn, we see examples of a strong centrifugal tendency at work in human affairs, driven essentially by discontentment which compounds itself. True, holistic well-being of society is on nobody’s agenda, while the greedy behave like hyenas, tugging with bloody fangs at the remaining healthy parts of society until little remains.

Comprehending the well-being of others requires compassion – without which no amount of materialistic development, hyped-up “progress” or “research”, politics, fashion, academic claims, brilliance, spin or propaganda can serve a legitimate, durable purpose. This is the simple, central truth that all “experts” evade like the plague. The don’t “do” compassion.

This frenetic, ceaseless evasion in all directions creates a strong divisive, centrifugal tendency. The priceless core of well-being is abandoned as “experts” run ragged in every conceivable direction except towards the core of well-being and contentment.

Fortunately, for the discriminating individual, that core is ever-present, deep within – waiting patiently to be discovered and its treasure unlocked.

_________________________________________________

Dr Naresh Jotwani is a semi-retired academic living in India and a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. Apart from part-time engagements in engineering education and consulting, he engages in an in-depth, personal exploration of how Gautam Buddha’s profound discoveries and teachings can be applied to the acute problems of modern life.
Tags: ElitesHumanity

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 30 Nov 2020.