How Smart Automation Can Be Used In International Development

This article was originally posted on

Artificial Intelligence is one of those buzzwords in tech that everyone’s heard, but few people actually understand how it can be used in practice. If you’re to believe Hollywood or Stephen Hawking, AI either means androids that are indistinguishable from humans (except for the inability to use conjunctions) or super-intelligent computers that could spell the end of the human race. After attending a Tech Salon on how AI can be used in international development, I can say with absolute certainty that it is neither of those things… yet. But the “commodification” of AI is making “smart automation” — a term I quite liked as a useful synonym for AI — much more accessible outside Silicon Valley. In fact, you probably already used some form of AI today without even knowing it.

Before we get into how AI can be used in international development, let’s first understand for what type of things smart automation can and can’t be used. These capabilities or limitations can be broken down into three categories.

First, computers can now be trained to automate human intelligence. In other words, we can now train computers to do simple tasks that only humans used to be able to do — things like find which photos in your photo album have cats in them. This is a learning process whereby a human sorts out cat photos and a machine-learning algorithm (another tech buzzword) builds its own model to automate the process of finding cat photos.

Second, smart automation is only really useful as a way to augment human ability; it does not replace humans wholesale. AI is really good at classification and prediction, but it will never be 100 percent accurate. You still need a human to monitor the results, check for bias and make judgment calls.

Ok, so, now that the AI found the cat photos, it’s up to you — human — to exclude the one that is just a realistic-looking cat-shaped slipper (how’d that get in there?!?) and post the cutest, most relevant one as your animal shelter’s Facebook cover photo. We’re trying rescue kittens, not sell cat slippers…silly computer.

Finally, computers are way better than humans at doing simple, mundane tasks over and over without error or referencing vast databases of complex information. Smart automation is, therefore, a pathway to scale.

The cat example doesn’t work quite as well in this case so I’m going to dispense with that metaphor and instead turn to a real-life problem. There are simply too few doctors in Nigeria, and — given the size of the population and its rate of growth — it will be generations before we can train enough doctors. Smart automation has been shown to be surprisingly accurate at diagnosing medical ailments. Combining AI-assisted diagnosis with community health workers — who require way less training than a doctor — could be an important pathway to scaling access to medical services in places like Nigeria.

So how would an organization like NDI get started in smart automation? The Tech Salon folks recommended starting with a mid-scale pilot project tied to metrics for success and getting top-down institutional buy-in. But for me, the “how” is way less important than the “what.” In other words, selecting the right pilot project based on previously successful use cases is way more important than the size or institutional buy-in of the pilot. Also, your organization should probably have the capacity to support “dumb automation” — automation that doesn’t employ machine learning algorithms — before it makes the leap to supporting smart automation.

NDI is currently looking for ideas on an appropriate pilot project for smart automation. If you have ideas, you can email me at jfrant [at] ndi [dot] org (<= hoping the AIs aren’t smart enough to read that… yet).


Organizations/Networks Working To Resist Trump and/or Support American Democracy

Here is a list of organizations/networks that are working resist Trump and support American democracy. If you know of others, please add them in the comments. And PLEASE sign up with your favorite(s) to get involved:

Will there be a fourth democratic wave?

This article was originally posted on

As the Cold War came to a close, renowned political scientist, professor and author, Francis Fukuyama, proclaimed the end of history. He said humankind had reached the endpoint of its “ideological evolution,” and Western liberal democracy had won out as the “final form of human government.” At around the same time, another influential political scientist, Samuel P. Huntington wrote that the world was in the middle of a “third wave” of democratic expansion. But 23 years later, the third democratic wave has hit a wall. According to Larry Diamond, founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy, the rapid democratic expansion, which began in the 1970s and continued until 2005, is now in recession.

A number of theories have been put forth to explain this democratic stagnation.

Diamond points to “bad governance” as the most influential factor that has led to an authoritarian resurgence and the retreat of Western democracy. Underdeveloped democratic institutions were ill-equipped to handle abuses of power, which were exacerbated by the global economic crisis and increasing inequality. Western democracy suffered a blow to its reputation, resulting from a perceived “decline of democratic efficacy, energy and self-confidence,” says Diamond. The United States has not been immune, suffering repeated bouts of political gridlock and economic turmoil.

Pat Merloe, NDI’s senior associate and director of electoral programs, contends that the struggle against authoritarianism and the deficiencies of established Western democracies are long-term challenges that require resolve. Factors like rapid authoritarian learning and the spread of new forms of terrorism complicate democratic development and must be met with effective democratic learning and innovation to create a “democratic stimulus” and avoid a “democratic depression.”

Democracy Works – a project by the Legatum Institute and the Center for Development and Enterprise, which coincidentally shares a title with NDI’s recently launched blog – says that the resurgent appeal of authoritarianism is also driven by economics.

China’s rapid economic rise accounted for 76.09 percent of global poverty reduction between 1990–2005, and was a primary reason that the world was able to halve global poverty five years ahead of the Millenium Development Goal target.

The Democracy Works project argues that China’s hybrid model – which employs market mechanisms alongside a command economy – has demonstrated an “attractive alternative to Western-style democratic capitalism.” But the Chinese model does not have a monopoly on delivering inclusive economic growth. The project points to three developing societies that are delivering economic growth, along with the other trappings of democratic society: stability, accountability, liberty and human rights. Three fifths of the BRICS – India, Brazil and South Africa – represent an often-overlooked democratic alternative from the South.

Warning that the third democratic wave would not last forever, Huntington’s 1991 article predicted a fourth democratic wave occurring sometime in the 21st century. He wrote: “The two most decisive factors affecting the future consolidation and expansion of democracy will be economic development and political leadership. Economic development makes democracy possible; political leadership makes it real.”

Will there be a fourth democratic wave? It will take democratic stimulus, political leadership and economic development.

Tracking South Africa’s Democracy In Real Time

This article was originally posted on the World Policy Journal and Council on Foreign Relations blogs.

By Le Chen, Janice Dean, Jesper Frant, and Rachana Kumar

We arrived in Johannesburg after 17 hours in the air, with a short, hurried stopover in London. As the airplane doors opened, the scorching 80 degree weather of South Africa’s Highveld greeted us, melting the sub-zero temperatures from recent New York winter memory. The change in weather was cheerful but, as graduate students from Columbia University’s School of International Affairs, we were more interested in the changing climate of South African democracy.

We arrived at a crucial and transitional moment in South Africa’s history, beginning on what we hope to be an important project on the country’s democratic future. Following Nelson Mandela’s death in 2013, the May 2014 elections will be a bellwether for the future of democracy in South Africa. Whether this election will lead to a more representative and responsive government or increased political divisiveness and turmoil remains an unanswered question.

Our project, the South Africa Service Delivery Protest Tracker, will stand as a resource used to provide information for gauging the strength of South African democracy. To do so, we are focusing in on the country’s service delivery protests. These protests, a legacy of the apartheid era, are organic uprisings that occur with regularity across South Africa when a community feels its right to basic services – sanitation, water, housing, electricity, etc. – are not being met by the government.

The protest tracker is part of a student consulting practicum with John Campbell, former Ambassador of United States to Nigeria and Africa Fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations. His work and the work of many experts inform our new tech-driven project.

For many analysts, service delivery protests are an indicator of the strength, or weakness, of South African democracy. In “Pathways to Freedom,” a book co-authored by Ambassador Campbell, the authors write that civic organizations in South Africa  “now play an important role in agitating for better service delivery, more accountable governance, and policies to address poverty, inequality, and high unemployment.” Protest, a legacy of the fight against apartheid, remains one of the primary tools wielded by these civil society organizations. However, little is known about the character and scale of these protests in aggregate.

The protest tracker will aggregate news articles and other online media sources and subsequently visualize mentions of service delivery protests both geographically and over time. Building upon the methodology the Council on Foreign Relations used to build the Nigeria Security Tracker, we plan to develop an online platform that automates the process of tracking and aggregating data on these protests. The hope is that this tool will be a source of real-time data on protests that will be useful for policy makers, think tanks, journalists, academics as well as the general public.

A search of FACTIVA’s database revealed preliminary evidence that reporting on service delivery protests has been increasing since the early 2000s, with a sharp downturn in 2013. However, this data is limited by internal factors such as FACTIVA’s addition of new sources and external factors like the media’s use of the term “service delivery protest.”

Our field research in Johannesburg, which included interviews with key stakeholders and visits to townships, brought a better understanding of the current media and political environment in South Africa. This new information triggered debate among our team members on some of our project’s underlying assumptions and intended direction

The first aspect we debated was where to get our data. For example, we explored using FACTIVA, a service that aggregates articles from top South African media outlets, web media, trade and consumer publications. This dataset would be used as our baseline – a point of comparison to judge the reliability of the data we collect via the protest tracker.  Through our interviews in South Africa – covering academia, newspapers, non-profit organizations – we realized that FACTIVA’s data may be insufficient as a baseline for our project.

FACTIVA, although covering 28 languages over 35 years, excludes the dominating local languages in South Africa like Afrikaans and Zulu. More importantly, FACTIVA’s data is unreliable when looking for trends over time due to changing reporting patterns and shifting data sources. Relatively little reporting on service delivery protests in prior to 2004 (see graph) may not necessarily indicate fewer service delivery protests during that time because journalists may not have used the term “service delivery protest” as a description.

Moreover, the increasing number of articles mentioning service delivery protests may have more to do with FACTIVA’s addition of new sources than with the country’s political situation. While selection bias may be unavoidable with a methodology that involves aggregating news sources, the effect can be minimized by creating as comprehensive a list of sources as possible, favoring local newspapers, and designing search terms that accurately reflect the most commonly used lexicon in reporting about service delivery protests.

We then were forced to re-consider what exactly our project sought to contribute. We quickly learned of a number of research projects on service delivery protests, involving separate groups which employ similar methodologies: Service Delivery Protest Barometer, ISS Crime Hub, MunicipalIQ, Mail &Guardian, the University of Johannesburg, and Rhodes University. How was ours different?

Soon it became clear that, while these groups tend to be better at recording individual protests, few are open source and most leave the data sources disconnected from the final visualizations. Graphs and visualizations, although comprehensive and full of information, tend to be static snapshots of the data. Our project aims to fill in these gaps by creating an interactive online dashboard that empowers users to look beyond numbers and explore the context behind each data point.

As we begin to develop this platform, many questions remain unanswered. How can we make this project sustainable so that it will live on beyond our semester-long practicum? Can an automated methodology fully capture the complexity of service delivery protests and distribute valuable data? These questions, in addition to concerns over time-constraints and technological solutions, remain unanswered.

This is the first of three dispatches from South Africa covering our work. Follow along as we design a platform to track service delivery protests and report on South African democracy in the lead up to the imminent elections.


Le Chen, Janice Dean, Jesper Frant, and Rachana Kumar are Master of Public Administration students at Columbia University’s School of International Public Affairs. They are working with Ambassador John Campbell. The project was made possible by faculty advisor Professor Anne Nelson.

mDATA: New Media Taskforce app competition submission

I, along with two of my colleagues at SIPA (Ashish and Swami), submitted the following application to the New Media Taskforce’s first mobile app competition. Today, we had the chance to present our idea in front of an expert panel. There was some stiff competition and, unfortunately, we did not make the top three, but I’m encouraged by the positive feedback that we got…If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

Feel free to take a look at our submission and let me know what you think in the comments section below. Also, check out the blog post I wrote (and didn’t immediately publish) that was the genesis of this idea.

I won the lottery

Last week I won the lottery. No, I’m not a multi-million dollar Powerball winner. I won the opportunity to see former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan speak at Columbia University.

Secretary General Kofi Annan at SIPA

Secretary General Kofi Annan Speaks at Columbia’s School of International Public Affairs

The discussion ranged from the UN’s failure to prevent the Rwandan genocide – which Secretary Annan blamed on a lack of international political will following the “Blackhawk Down” incident in Somalia – to the current crisis in Syria.

Annan briefly touched on his resignation as UN special peace envoy to Syria, blaming UN’s failure to broker peace on the international community’s failure to close ranks against the Assad regime (specifically blaming China and Russia’s intransigence). Annan mentioned his successful mission to Kenya as an example of what the international community can accomplish when it speaks with one voice. As chief negotiator in 2008, he successfully brokered a deal between President Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga to form a coalition government. Still, I can’t help but wonder if Annan was the best choice in Syria given the context. Simply put, Annan is not a muslim and does not carry the same authority in the Middle East as he does in Africa.

What are your thoughts on this? Let me know in the comments section below.

Participating in this event was an amazing opportunity that I doubt I would have had at any other school. That said, I was so drained from my statistics midterm the day before that Annan’s quiet and monotonous voice nearly put me to sleep during his opening remarks. Note to self: drink more coffee.

The president deserves four more years

I hope everyone’s registered. The deadline is almost here. Also, if you voted in 2008 and you plan to sit this one out, you need to start paying attention…the stakes are higher than ever. Let’s not turn our backs on the president that kept the U.S. from falling into another Great Depression right as the economy shows signs of recovery. He deserves four more years to make good on his promises. The opposition is just peddling snake oil (i.e. budget cuts w/out increased revenue to close the deficit and grow the economy).