The solution to a huge number of modern-day problems lies hidden in plain sight—obscured among tables of endless statistics and lines of binary zeros and ones. From the promise of better health care to the chance to wipe out traffic jams, there’s a mountain of unearthed opportunity just waiting to be mined. Fortunately, a rising number of researchers in the Arab world are taking on these huge datasets in search of answers.
These researchers say their mission is to exploit the potential of data for the region’s benefit, but many of them rely on data sourced from the West, which can limit the local relevance of their findings. To rectify this, some are also working to create more databases in the Arab world.
“Big data is not a well defined term and everyone seems to use it to attract people to their conferences,” jokes Ali Jaoua, a professor of computer science at Qatar University. “To me it means extracting information from data. But what is big? There’s no magic number of terabytes to say when a dataset becomes big.”
To others, big data is what happens when computer science and social science issues collide—it’s the intersection between knowledge and statistics.
What is clear is that researchers like Jaoua now have access to data on an almost daunting scale, thanks to open source data from Twitter, smarter technology and the availability of cheap sensors.
Big data as a field is still growing in the Middle East. “The first independent big data focused event in the region was in 2013,” says Dubai-based data scientist and industry analyst Ali Rabaie. It has since grown considerably with major conferences held in most Gulf countries every year. “We still can’t compare the big data scene here to the United States,” he adds. “But I can say we’re on the right track.”
Rabaie, originally from Lebanon, is well known within the budding Arab big data community. In a list that included brands like Dell and IBM, he was recently named as one of the world’s top 65 “big data influencers” in a report by Onalytica, a company specializing in analyzing influencer relationships.
He says he’d like to see more “hackathons” organized in the region, where computer programmers, data scientists and software designers work together intensively on an innovative project with a very short deadline—to be completed within just a few days. This kind of conference is commonplace in the United States and Europe and would help to encourage young Arabs interested in big data, says Rabaie.
Other experts agree that big data research is fast emerging as an area of focus in the Gulf, if not the wider Arab world. “I wouldn’t say it’s primitive or new any more. But there’s a lot of potential that is yet to be realized,” explains Aamena Alshamsi, a data science researcher at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi.
Last year Alshamsi became the first Emirati PhD student to graduate from Masdar in the field of big data research. Her current area of study involves using historical data to map the transition of different countries’ economies. She’s looking to see what variables typically coincide with the diversification of an economy. “It’s about looking for patterns in the data that people might have missed,” she says.
This is an area of particular interest to the oil-rich Gulf States, which are looking at alternative ways to keep revenues going without relying on oil.
Alshamsi says she likes to study big data for two reasons. First, to unearth new information to better understand why things happen the way they do. “If we don’t look at the data, we miss opportunities,” she says. “Big data is an honest tool to tell you exactly what’s going on.”
Second, it’s a growing field with more job openings than qualified applicants. She says this represents a real prospect for young Arabs who aspire to a successful career.
The Arab world’s rate of youth unemployment is the highest in the world, and Alshamsi isn’t the only one who sees the region’s potential for more jobs in big data.
Raed Sharif is the senior program officer at the Cairo branch of Canada’s International Development Research Centre. “We want to build the talent pool that can use big data,” he says. “Some people say data is the new oil, but to take advantage of it you need to have the right skills. We are trying to promote educational materials on data literacy.”
As part of this effort, Sharif is organizing one of the hackathons that Rabaie prescribed—and there’s been a lot of interest. “We wanted 65 hackers, and we got over 1,200 applications,” says Sharif. Further, the applicants weren’t just from urban areas like Cairo or from more developed countries like the Emirates; people from rural Upper Egypt and refugee camps also applied. “This is promising, and I’m really pleased,” he adds.
While there may be an increasing interest from academics and amateurs alike, Sharif is concerned that a shortage of available data sourced from within the Arab world is a problem. “Arabs doing big data with foreign data is good,” he says. “But it means they’re more likely to be solving foreign problems.”
In an example that bucks this trend, Jaoua and his colleague from Qatar University, Jihad Al Jaam, have developed an algorithm to scrub data from financial news reports published in Qatar and elsewhere in the Gulf.
Their computer model is trained to sift through news items in search of information that is relevant to investors in the energy market.
“If there’s a sudden change in a company’s management or an accident, for example, then that’s important to investors,” says Al Jaam. “We have thousands of documents and articles with this kind of data. We pool all this information and analyze the data in real time.”
“We targeted news coming from the Arab world,” he adds, “because that data can then be used by banks and investors here in Doha.”
Sharif wants to see more data research like this with a tangible application in the Arab world. That’s why he’s working to convince private industry and government agencies in the region to make more of their data open and free to researchers. To do this, he promotes such openness as an economic opportunity; he wants companies to understand that they could reap rewards from young researchers crunching their numbers.
“If you’re a telecom company, for example, when you allow us to analyze your data we might figure out where your network is most active or lacking,” explains Sharif. “This makes your expansion policies and marketing more relevant.”
In short, according to Sharif, there are two big wins to be had for the Arab world in continuing to pursue and prioritize big data research. Not only is it a way to tackle youth unemployment, but it also provides practical applications to help the region’s economies.