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Big data, big decisions: the Indonesian way

Written by Arnaldo Pellini

The writer Elizabeth Pisani recently told an anecdote about asking 50 random people in Covent Garden, London, to point to Indonesia on a small plastic globe. Only a few pointed to the right spot. This confirmed, she said, that a country as vast, populated and diverse as Indonesia is actually not very prominent in international affairs. 

Yet in the digital world, Indonesia is king – social media and mobile technology are booming. While fewer than 24% of its population has access to internet, internet users increased by a whopping 163% between 2010-13; by 2015 the forecast indicates there will be 145 million users. Indonesia is the fourth largest market for Facebook with 43 million users, and Twitter’s third largest country with 385 tweets posted every second. There is no other city in the world that sends more tweets every day than Jakarta

Social media is already changing the language of politics as digital platforms become the new space where political support is sought and where policy decisions are debated and almost instantly. 

In 2012, the Jokowi campaign for Jakarta’s governorship used social media to communicate with supporters and reach out to more people. Last September, the House of Representatives passed a bill taking away people’s right to vote for mayors, district heads and governors, and giving it instead to regional legislatures. That led to an uproar via social media, which forced the President to sign a government regulation in lieu of a law.

The explosion of social media and digital devices, from smartphones to drones, has prompted the public and the private sector in Indonesia to explore the potential use of digital ‘traces’ (often referred to as ‘big data’) for real-time awareness and early warning. 

So in an age where governments around the world are looking to the power of data - what can we learn from Indonesia?

The data innovation landscape for policy makers

In August, a team led by Bappenas (Indonesia’s Ministry of Planning), alongside Australia’s Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and the World Bank, examined this very area and how in particular how to enhance existing data initiatives. 

The findings show that there are exciting innovations already underway at both a national and subnational level and there is a genuine demand for real-time and actionable data. Examples vary from citizen-driven initiatives, like the remarkable Kawal Pemilu election monitoring application, to the UN Global Pulse big data climate change challenge winner Global Forest Watch; from the citizen feedback mechanism Lapor all the way to opensource research like PetaJakarta and Floodtags.

Nevertheless there are still many gaps and challenges. Indonesia has only begun to develop the systems to manage large data sets, and the skills and knowledge required to analyse these data. Without this, the risk is that evidence derived from the data will not feed into policy-making processes. 

Also, while local governments and ministries use data in planning processes, there is still limited understanding of how data can be used to assess and redirect policies and programmes that are not moving in the right direction. And in many cases, policy makers still aren’t using citizen inputs, feedback, and innovation from the analysis of social media and other forms of telecommunication enough. 

Data innovation: can Indonesia lead the way?

How is Indonesia tackling these challenges? One example is PulseLab Jakarta, a Bappenas-UN pilot initiative aiming to bring together the Indonesian government, non-governmental organisations and the private sector to research and – most importantly – facilitate the adoption of new approaches for applying new digital data sources and real-time analysis techniques to social development.

Another useful starting point is to map existing innovations and find a way to connect them and increase their impact. Understanding and reinforcing organically-emerging patterns is more likely to succeed than trying to impose an idealistic picture of the future.

One step in this direction is the Data Innovation for Policy Makers international conference in Bali on 26-27 November. It will bring together both Indonesian and international experiences to share ways to harness big data for public policy, involve citizens in collecting data, and improve frontline services and data collection on the most marginalised communities.

Yet despite this progress, the biggest challenge around data and innovation is still to convince people of the power and the potential of data. We need to communicate clearly and transparently that data are critical to understanding our society and can help to make a real contribution to better policy decisions.

The process and dynamics that are developing in Indonesia show that the potential is there for high quality and impactful data. Only by freeing data up and allowing new ways of analysis, will it be possible to maximise what it tells us. Indonesian policy and decision-makers need now to grab the opportunities that this innovation provides them, while ensuring there is buy in from citizens. In doing so Indonesia can become the country that other governments look to in developing their data innovation strategies.