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Big government needs big data to protect children

Government’s inability to harness data to support policy decisions means it cannot protect those that new regulations are intended to protect, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK


A flagrant disregard for facts is an excellent way for a government to embarrass itself. In recent weeks, we’ve seen two examples of absurd new laws proposed or implemented in the name of protecting children, with little evidence to back up the arguments.

The absurdity of the Film and Publications Board (FPB) trying to gain control over all Internet content, ostensibly to help it protect children, is almost as bad as the Department of Home Affairs introducing onerous new travel regulations for foreign tourists, in order to prevent child trafficking.

The latter is particularly offensive, in that it strikes a massive blow against a successful tourism industry, without addressing the scourge.

The travel regulations are based on little more than urban legends, and stem from claims about tens of thousands of women being trafficked as sex slaves for the 2006 and 2010 FIFA World Cup finals. The 2006 event in Germany supposedly saw 40 000 women trafficked across Europe. Similar numbers were bandied about for South Africa in 2010, with some estimates as high as 100 000. Building on the arguments, an NGO at the time issued an estimate of 30 000 child prostitutes in South Africa – numbers quickly discredited as having no basis in evidence.

The truth is, there was very little cross-border trafficking in either country during the tournaments. In Germany, there were only five reported cases. Most trafficking in South Africa happens from within the country. However, the very fact that no official statistics are available tells us about Government’s inability to base policy on facts.

The same applies to the FPB, which seeks sweeping powers in order “to ensure cyber safety of children and that children are protected from disturbing and harmful content access through social media and mobile platforms”. Considering that the proposed regulations are drawing international attention for their draconian provisions, it would be assumed that the Board, or at least the Department of Communications under which it falls, would have conducted rigorous homework on the issue.

For example, how much content posted in YouTube from South Africa can be construed as “disturbing and harmful”? The answer is, so little that it would barely register. But even that answer is merely an assumption. And the FPB is basing control of, among other, all South African YouTube content, on the same kind of assumption.

We have entered an era of Big Data, in which it is not only possible to gather statistical evidence on any topic, but also to analyse the statistics rigorously and extract insights that guide policy, strategy and decision-making. That is the essence of Big Data.

We could begin with Small Data. A study by the Human Sciences Research Council published in the March 2010 edition of the Development Southern Africa journal included interviews with 300 street children, as merely a sample of children living on the streets. Based on its research, it estimated a high likelihood that there were at least 3200 children living on the streets of Gauteng.

Living conditions are just the beginning of the horrors to which these thousands of children are exposed.

Were there a fraction of the energy devoted to protecting them as there is to undermining tourism and online publishing in the name of protecting children, then government’s commitment to this cause could be taken a little more seriously.

But when you don’t believe in acting on data, why would you believe in acting on the evidence that is constantly available before your eyes?

  •  Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube.

This article first appeared in Arthur’s Signpost column in The Sunday Times, Business Times section, on 14 June 2015








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Posted in the category: Insight, Strategy, Technology

Big Data game gets real

The German football team’s use of big data during the 2014 FIFA World Cup brought the concept into sharp focus, but such “real-time” application is not new, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK


On the exhibition floor of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February, one of the stand-out displays was a large TV screen on which the tactics of the German football team were being analysed.

Enterprise systems company SAP was demonstrating how an application called Match Insights could gather data before and during a soccer match, and use it to influence the team manager’s tactical decisions while the game was on.

Most saw the demo as a marketing exercise. But when Germany won the World Cup, systematically outplaying opponents with superior tactics, the data game suddenly became very real.

According to SAP, the journey started last year when national team general manager Oliver Bierhoff found that players were most happy communicating with each other via digital platforms. He commissioned SAP to develop an application that could facilitate the exchange of information, including data about opponents.
SAP Match Insights was then developed in collaboration with the German National Team.
“This data can be converted into simulations and graphs that can be viewed on a tablet or smartphone, enabling trainers, coaches and players to identify and assess key situations in each match,” says Manoj Bhoola, a director at SAP Africa. “SAP Match Insights synchronised the data from scouts with the video footage taken from the pitch to make it easy for coaches to identify key moments in the game.”
The impact of these insights on the outcome of the World Cup are not as easy to quantify, but it’s given “big data” one of its biggest showcases yet. And it could well invade news media.
“Big data is an incredible resource for coaches and players to contextualise information and draw well-informed conclusions to optimise training and tactics,” says Simon Carpenter, chief customer officer at SAP Africa. “It’s high time to make this type of information accessible to sports journalism and the fans as well.”

German soccer may have officially discovered big data, but it’s a path that’s already well-trodden among large enterprises.

“We have been doing it all along,” says Desan Naidoo, managing director for Southern Africa of SAS, the global analytics company. “But some of the aspects have changed. If you look at the volume and variety of structured and unstructured data, ranging from social networks to text and video, that has definitely changed. 90% of all data ever created has been created in the last two years.

“This is unbelievable in itself. But now the requirement from clients to have access to this data has moved from running data through models for 18 to 24 hours, to wanting access in minutes or seconds.”

And it’s not enough merely to analyse the data that is formally collected in organisational systems.

“We’ve had to tap into social media data. We’ve had to restructure the way we do analytics to cope with the volumes. We’ve had to look at hardware changes and infrastructure, such as in-memory analysis.”

The latter refers to loading all the relevant data into live memory, so that it can be processed on the fly, providing usable information in seconds. A typical example is a customer going into a bank wanting a home loan; the bank can now run a risk profile and provide an answer while the individual is waiting.

“In the past, if you based that risk profile on all the data sources the bank has, it would have taken hours,” says Naidoo. “Having access in-memory means you can click a button and run a risk profile accessing all that data, instantaneously. On top of that, analytics today can predict how that customer will behave, rather than being merely reactive, as in the past.

“That’s what big data means today.”

• Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

This article first appeared in Arthur’s Signpost column in The Sunday Times, Business Times section, on 27 July 2014

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Posted in the category: Insight, Strategy, Technology, Trends

BlackBerry 10 signals new round in smartphone war

This is the debut edition of Signposts, Arthur Goldstuck’s new weekly column for the Sunday Times Business Times. It is archived in The Big Change a week after appearing in print.

On 30 January 2013, BlackBerry served notice that it had rejoined the smartphone wars.

The spotlight was on the first phone sporting its new BlackBerry 10 operating system, the Z10. But, between the scripted lines of the launch event, the company formerly known as Research in Motion (RIM) sent out many signals of a newly fortified brand.

On the surface, the Z10 is merely a high-end device playing catch-up with all the high-end devices from rivals like Apple and its iPhone 5, Samsung with the Galaxy S III, and Nokia armed with its Lumia 920. These three phones also happen to run on the three major rival operating systems, respectively Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows 8 Mobile.

The older BlackBerry 7 operating system, which underpins the current ranges of Curve, Bold and Torch phones, could never be mentioned seriously in this company. The founders and former joint CEOs of RIM, Michale Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, would not bring themselves to admit it – one of many reasons they needed to step aside and make way for the current CEO, Thorsten Heins

While his predecessors had paved the way for BlackBerry 10, Heins instantly set about changing the way the organization thinks about its customers and its technology. One of the many outcomes of his new-broom approach was the announcement, on Wednesday night, that the RIM brand would be killed off, and the company would henceforth be known by the same name as its core brand, BlackBerry.

Symbolically, the new branding buried RIM’s recent past and its one-time culture of attempting to dictate to customers what it thought best for the market.

Keep reading →

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Posted in the category: News

Lies, damned lies … and percentage growth

One of the many banes of a technology journalist’s life is a tech company gushing about its percentage growth – while refusing to divulge actual numbers.

This is almost always cause for alarm. Invariably, it means the base figure is so low, it would be an embarrassment to the company to reveal its true performance. But anyone can claim 678 percent customer or user growth if they only had 2 customers to start, and anyone can truthfully declare 200 percent revenue growth if revenue started at a few hundred or even thousand dollars.

Let’s be straight about this: it is an insult to present journalists with these kinds of numbers. That many of these claims make it into the media is not a reflection of credibility, but of poor journalism and inability of journalists to think through the claims they report.

This is only marginally more offensive than the use of old data to back up current arguments. Especially in the mobile arena, and especially in Africa, growth is so fast, that old data is all but irrelevant – and yet many companies still base both business decisions and claims on a long gone status quo.

A rule of mobile Internet resrarch has even been coined in South Africa to warn against this form of sloppy data use: Gray’s Rule, named for veteran Internet marketer Scott Gray:

“Research around mobile typically has a relevant life of around three months. Decrease the relevance by about a third for every six months on top of that.”

The rule has been bandied about among South African tech journalists frustrated with the relevance given to old data by large corporations. It’s been modified somewhat by refinements and corrolaries, to allow for the difficulty in accessing fruit-tree-fresh data.

For example, there has been consensus that, if such data is accompanied by solid forecasts based on proven methodologies, it may be used to extrapolate data by a further 12–18 months. However, this does not apply to data more than 18 months old.

The underlying assumption is that the research is based on sampling that is broad enough to be generally representative of a population in question.

In April, during a Virtual Indaba to thrash out further rules around acceptance of statistical claims, Brainstorm editor Samantha Perry pointed to a third broad category of data abuse: the use of undated statistics in press releases or marketing material, in an attempt to avoid having to vouch for their veracity. The refusal to accept such data was accepted as Perry’s Corrolary to Gray’s Rule.

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Posted in the category: News

Online Retail growth in SA: The Tweenote presentation

Tweenote presentation (10 Tweets on a topic in 10 minutes) of MasterCard Online Shopping Survey with South African industry context (using hashtag #MCSurvey):

1. #MCSurvey MasterCard Online Shopping Survey part of global study. Local industry context from World Wide Worx research.

2. #MCSurvey sampled 500 SA consumers, 18-64, banked, online at least once a week. Representative of highly active users.

3. #MCSurvey found 58% of active Internet users shopping online in 2011. World Wide Worx puts that at 1,65-million people.

4. #MCSurvey found high growth in % of online shoppers: up from 44% in 2009, 53% in 2010; and % of growing base each year.

5. #MCSurvey showed concern over security falling rapidly: 2009: 59% worried; 2010: 47%; 2011: 38%. Function of experience.

6. #MCSurvey finds key factors in growth are price/value, convenience and secure sites. Backed by World Wide Worx research.

7. #MCSurvey shows product and site reviews increase confidence. Social media (Facebook, Twitter) will be vital in process.

8. #MCSurvey finds virtual products, eg coupons, air tickets, gaming and apps, most likely to be bought online vs offline.

9. #MCSurvey finds grocery shopping in decline, down from 27% to 9%. Mirrors World Wide Worx finding segment stagnating.

10. #MCSurvey finds Kalahari, Amazon and Bidorbuy the biggest online retail drawcards for SA. Groupon biggest contendor.

Thank you for following the #MCSurvey tweenote. Full details of the findings are up on @GadgetZA at



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The Big Change is a business strategy blog and newsletter published by Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a leading technology research organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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