Diastika Rahwidiati is Deputy Head of Office for Pulse Lab Jakarta and on the POPS Advisory Council. She is passionate about civic innovation, and especially interested in the thinkers, doers and fixers that create positive change across Indonesia.
POPS is delighted to have enticed you onto our Advisory Council. Welcome!
Thanks, Andrew! Really happy to be on board!
Tell us a little about the work of Pulse Lab, here in Jakarta and more broadly.
Pulse Lab Jakarta was set up about five years ago to be an open space where scientists, government staff, civil society and development partners could collaborate to explore how to use new sources of data for better decision-making. When we first started off, our focus was very much on harnessing big data – and Indonesia, with its wealth of social media data, is a very interesting place to be.
Over the years, we’ve learnt that big data analytics works best in providing insights for policy makers when (1) they are used in combination with the tremendous amount of data that the government already have, (2) when they are addressing a clear information gap, and (3) when they are presented in a way that makes sense to users. So in addition to our core data science skills, we’ve incrementally expanded the expertise at the lab to include human-centered design, social research, and knowledge-to-policy processes. I think this multi-disciplinarity and contextualisation of data analytics has really helped us navigate Indonesia’s data ecosystem.
In your work right now, what gets you most excited—and why?
I really like the direction we are going on combining advanced data analytics with human-centered research. Neither approach is particularly new, and big data has probably been overhyped for some time now. What I think big data analytics is good at doing is providing you with a pretty comprehensive picture of real-time patterns, what people say, how people move, how they interact… The exciting part for me is combining this with social research approaches that can help understand why people do these things. We tested some of this a while ago with our work analysing haze signals, and we’re hoping to delve further into this approach to examine urban issues this year.
Another thing that excites me now is Indonesia’s data landscape – this is a piece that Derval Usher (PLJ’s Lab Manager) and I wrote last year. It feels like the elements of a thriving, dynamic data ecosystem are coming together. Not only are there many, many more people that have serious data science expertise compared to a few years ago, but also I feel that there is significantly increased demand for data analytics to inform public policy decisions. I think this is pretty awesome – with Indonesia’s emergence as a middle-income economy, the country will have to make increasingly complex choices on how to allocate its resources. This would require pretty sophisticated analysis, including on how to optimise insights that can be gleaned from the government’s existing datasets and combining this with new sources of data. This has a lot of bearing on how we operate as a lab, I think: in this kind of ecosystem, our role would be to hedge the risk for experimentation, especially for public policy makers – and, if these experiments succeed, to then connect them with the expertise needed to implement these solutions at scale.
You work closely with the government of Indonesia. What lessons can you share about supporting government demand and capacity for engaging around technology for development?
Demand for knowledge and the supply of knowledge are important, but intermediation between equally key. I think in the last couple of years we’ve invested time and expertise into better intermediation between what we are able to supply as a lab and what is being asked by our government counterparts. This means striking the balance between pushing the boundaries of experimentation in our own independent research agenda, and developing fit-for-purpose solutions to meet demand for analytics from our government partners.
I think there’s inherently a strong demand for data analytics to inform policy making. What’s been critical for us as a lab is to develop a more comprehensive understanding of policy issue priorities of each of our government counterparts, and where there might be information gaps. Often times, I feel our role is to help shape and articulate the demand for the types of analysis needed, and expand the horizons of what’s possible to do with different datasets.
I’d certainly like to think that over the years, we’ve managed to develop a stronger trust-based relationship with some of the people we’ve worked with in government. This moves the interaction beyond a unidirectional commissioning of research to more of a conversation. With experimentation comes a reasonably high degree of failure, and at this point in time, I feel that we have enough of a strong relationship to be able to say, “Hey, this approach didn’t work – shall we try something else?” or “Maybe this won’t address the information gap that you’ve identified – shall we brainstorm other ways of solving this?”
Another thing that I feel has been useful is that we now have a solid body of work on Indonesia that we can refer to when staring up discussions with new government partners. It really helps to have concrete examples that people can relate to, which then generates more ideas on what is feasible for the issue at hand.
What’s also been pretty cool, I think, is that we’re increasingly moving to a collaborative research model with our government counterparts, where they deploy their analysts to work closely with our research team for a few weeks. This works best is when there is clear complementarity in skills between us and government.
What are the biggest challenges you face in promoting technology for development?
Uneven infrastructure development would be the biggest challenge, especially in terms of equitable access to electricity and internet. In the world that we live in now, having these two things are key to obtaining information, turning this into knowledge, and broadening your view to what is possible. I recently read a report on government innovation in Denmark that mentions that 73% of innovations come from copying or being inspired by other people’s solutions – so I think having access to information that provides people with examples that inspire them would be quite crucial.
What are the hottest trends that you anticipate will impact your work in 2018?
Artificial intelligence and the ethics of its usage will influence the way we work, the way we analyse and obtain information, and how our conception of reality will be structured going ahead. It already affects the kind of research we can do, the kinds of information that we are exposed to, and to a significant extent, the way we make decisions. However, there are definitely risks that the same technology that can advance social good can also be used harmfully.
What are your top three online resources—outside of PLJ—for keeping up with knowledge sharing and latest trends in technology for development?
Can you highlight one innovator/entrepreneur in Asia & the Pacific that we should keep our eye on in 2018?
Maria Ressa—particularly now given all she and Rappler are facing. What I like about Rappler is that in addition to excellent news reporting they have a variety of ways of engaging citizens around issues—for example, in responding to local disasters and working with local governments to address these.
POPS Profiles are interviews with leading members of the technology, business and policy communities in Asia and the Pacific.
Photo credit: Diastika Rahwidiati