What we don't count, we can't account for

By Tessa Shaw

Data needs in development are increasingly being recognised as important channels that provide meaningful solutions to issues such as food security, as Sabina Lim has discovered. 1,000 global talents from 129 countries descended in Denmark recently to be part of a 10-day intensive innovation lab, UNLEASH. Bachelor of Commerce student, Sabina Lim, recounts her experience.

Sabina Lim
Sabina Lim

An internship with Dalberg Data Insights (DDI) this winter saw Sabina Lim working in Uganda to anticipate food insecurity by leveraging big data insights from telecommunications and satellite information. According to her, this experience formed her selection to UNLEASH. Lim is no stranger to humanitarian work and youth leadership on global health economics issues. In 2016, she represented the University at the 2016 OECD Forum in Paris to talk about social impact investment into Australian health and aged care, and attended the 2016 Young European Council as Chair of the External Affairs and Development Aid council, where she led negotiations on topics across migrant and refugee crisis.

Now back in Melbourne, we caught up with Lim to talk about her recent stint in Europe.

First of all, congratulations on such exciting opportunities to intern overseas, as well as participate in UNLEASH. How did you end up in Brussels in the first place?

The story of how I got the internship actually connects back to the BCom Career Mentoring Program. My mentor, Tania Smith, knew I was interested in the technology sector and put me in touch with one of her associates from her MBA, Max, who was based in Paris at the time. I had great conversations with him, and he happily put me in touch with tens of other interesting people building interesting companies across Europe, just to have a chat – not even considering an internship. One of these people was Alexis Eggermont from DDI, and long story short, I ended up working in Brussels for them a couple of months later.

What kind of work did you get to undertake at DDI?

We’re a small company, which meant I got to do a little bit of everything, but I worked on three main projects while I was there. One was building a prototype (i.e. not using real data, as we need legal agreements to do so, but something that would later be switched over to real data in a particular country) of a big data analytics tool, like an interactive dashboard, to track Sustainable Goals Indicators captured by (telecommunications) data. I started with building in tools to measure mobile phone and internet penetration, and later laid the foundations for mobile money and financial inclusion measures. This meant learning how to code in Python and then doing some front-end visualisation to be able to produce something that would be updated in real-time, and help policy-makers, NGOs, international organisations to make better and more informed decisions. It was also recently presented by my team to the Ugandan Bureau of Statistics to demonstrate what they could be using!

Was this quite an eye-opening experience?

Among other things, the technical work I did basically showed me how little accurate, and up-to-date, information and data there really is in development. We worked a little bit with the Ugandan National Bureau of Statistics and it was incredible to learn how important decisions are being based on very poor information. It’s always hard and expensive to collect good quality data, even in a country like Australia. In the developing world, the lack of infrastructure and money makes it even more difficult!

That must have been challenging! I understand you also worked on a project to combat hunger. Can you tell us a little about that?

This was actually the most exciting project I got to work on! I was given responsibility for one of our end-user relationships, where I worked primarily with Hunger Fighters, an NGO in Uganda, who works to strengthen local food security through a variety of community projects, including urban gardening, farmer support and school meals.

In Uganda, about 10.9 million people are currently facing acute food insecurity, and the problem is being exacerbated by the heavy refugee flow from South Sudan. I flew down to Uganda several times to work with them onsite, to understand their work and their data needs, and then be able to make sure the tool we built for them – using telecom data as a proxy for consumption and, in turn, understand spending patterns that can indicate food insecurity pressures – was what they needed.

Beside the work experience, technical and project management skills, is there anything else that you learned from working in such a dynamic, volatile environment?

This experience taught me about the importance of relationship building, especially in a developing country. No matter how much value our tool could provide, they weren’t going to use it unless they trusted it, and us. I also learned a lot about how different perspectives matter, and how often what we thought made sense, didn’t for the Ugandans. It was a timely reminder to never assume what is best, simply because it is all we know from our own experiences!

Can you tell us about UNLEASH and how it links into your work at DDI?

All of these experiences with DDI really led me to see myself in the long term, building private sector solutions to sustainable development challenges. It’s part of why I attended the UNLEASH conference, which aims to be a platform to facilitate that.

At UNLEASH, they essentially took a Venture Capitalist approach to solving sustainable development: bring 1000 global talents with different skills together, randomly allocate them into teams and give them problems to solve and see what they come up with. Not all will work, but if one or two do change things, then it will have been worth it. We spent two weeks in Denmark, and worked on our solutions at the Folk High Schools. These schools have a really interesting educational philosophy for non-formal adult education, with the idea of continuous learning in diverse fields and different educational models. Ours was the high school in Ry, set in the beautiful Danish countryside. We also spent time in Aarhus at the end of the conference, where we spoke to a variety of investors.

Are you able to tell us about the challenges faced by farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and how your team addressed these issues?

The team I worked with looked at addressing the low productivity of smallholder farmers, who are responsible for about 80% of local food production but can face up to 76% of gaps in potential yield in sub-Saharan Africa. There are a lot of things that affect the productivity of these farmers, but also a number of really low-cost measures that they could take. This includes spacing their crops properly (particularly important for bananas, plantain, maize or sorghum, all staple crops), or using pesticides more targeted and not through blanket coverage.

The gap we identified is that they often lack the appropriate information to make the right decisions. Pest destruction of crops and poor distribution are pretty significant problems. Our solution was to build a low-cost precision agriculture (this is a technique of agriculture that has been widely used in the developed world already) tool, and integrate it into their existing relationship network, to help farmers make better decisions.

How does the tool work, and why do you think it is a feasible solution?

One of my team members, Suman, has spent the last couple of years researching and building a low-cost camera with modified lenses which can take aerial photos and provide a rough measure of vegetation health (NDVI index), to help identify potential pest problem areas unseen to the naked eye, and spacing that allows for early intervention. What is particularly important about our solution, is that it is at a price point and technically literacy appropriate to the smallholder farmers. Drones are starting to take off in agriculture in developing countries, but they are unbelievably expensive and difficult to use - not to mention impractical when it comes to splitting images, charging them, flying them and also when there is heavy regulation.

Our solution is simple: a small, low-cost camera tied to a balloon on a rope. We can process the images through a small processor onsite with need only for a screen to show a vegetation health map and identify problem areas. It’s simple, and yet it offers so many benefits to the farmers and researchers.Sabina Lim

What are the next steps?

It’s been trialled in Thailand so far with positive results, and since the conference, a different group of us (all from UNLEASH, but in different teams) are trying to continue to work on this project, though modifying the context and geographical area slightly.

We’re hoping to pilot this further, with one option to do so with banana farmers in Nicaragua, and see where it takes us. Beyond farming, there’s also potential for it to be used for measures of carbon sequestration in agro forestry, and on payment for ecosystem services projects that are becoming increasingly popular. It’s very early days still!