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Interview – Prof Pulak Ghosh, Member of the UN Secretary-General's Big Data Innovation Initiative

Interview – Prof Pulak Ghosh, Member of the UN Secretary-General's Big Data Innovation Initiative


In October this year, Dr Pulak Ghosh, Professor, Quantitative Methods & Information Systems Area at IIMB, has been appointed as member of the Data Privacy Advisory Group of Global Pulse - the UN Secretary-General's Big Data innovation initiative.

Ghosh, the only expert from India, along with international experts, will advocate responsible use of Big Data for sustainable development and humanitarian action, it said.

Read this exclusive interview of Prof Pulak Ghosh with Analytics India Magazine.

[dropcap size="2"]AIM[/dropcap]Analytics India Magazine: Congratulations on being appointed to UN Secretary General's group. Please brief us on your goals and the work you are doing with the group.

[dropcap size="2"]PG[/dropcap]Pulak Ghosh: Thanks. It’s an honor to represent India. Let us first understand what this group is about.

The United Nations Secretary –General’s High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development agenda has called for a data revolution for improved accountability and decision-making, and to meet the challenges of measuring sustainable development. As a way forward, UN has this initiative called “UN Global Pulse” which is a flagship innovation initiative of the United Nations Secretary-General on big data. Its vision is to create an environment in which big data is being used safely and responsibly for public good.

UN global Pulse has created a high-level Global Pulse Data Privacy Advisory Group by bringing together “experts from public and private sector, academia and civil society, as a forum to engage in a continuous dialogue on critical topic related to data protection and privacy with the objective of unearthing precedents, good practices, and strengthen the overall understanding of how privacy protected analysis of big data can contribute to sustainable development and humanitarian action”.

Keeping the above issues in mind, my role is three fold: (1) Lend my expertise to the development of guidelines and practices that mitigates risks associated with privacy in Big Data analytics, while preserving utility for global development (2) how Big data analytics can be used for responsible social value creation (3) Participating in an ongoing privacy dialogue, providing feedback on proposed approaches and engaging in a privacy outreach campaign.

AIM: How do you think Big Data can be used for sustainable development and humanitarian action?

PG: The use of Big data is becoming mainstream, and it bring an enormous hope in social value creation, be it in Government, Corporate or policy making. Let me put some example in place.

Floods are a regular and natural phenomenon in our country and every year hundreds of people get affected in the disease spread and lack of proper rehabilitation, complaints about relief not coming to everybody in time etc. Can we use Big data to help the people, government officials to make the relief lot more structured and efficient?

We can use the mobile data at the aggregate level (frequency, duration etc) and analytics techniques from Geo-Spatial information mapping to map the movement of people during the disaster and these real time mapping can help us find (i) where to put the medical camp optimally (ii) where is the optimal dropping point for foods and other stuff (iii) we can even predict the likely areas where several disease will be spread and can take necessary precaution in real-time.

Big data can be efficiently used in health care. A lot of the times, particularly in rural India, people are very ignorant of diseases and the severity of the impending outcome on their health. However, whenever an individual walks in the primary healthcare/ hospital, we do store the data. Based on this data, we can do some predictive analytics and send out sms message to an individual alerting him/her of the upcoming diabetes check-up (as an example). Similarly several disease markers are highly correlated. Can use the updated information about one marker to predict the status of the other marker to alert any patient in advance. This will help in reaching out the patient much earlier than when he/she is bound to come to hospital with an advanced stage of the disease. Rural hospitals are resource constrained. One can use Big data analytics to reduce these problems also.

Big data can be used to reduce the crime of a city. We can take the historical data and develop a predictive analytics which can tell us which road/intersection is more vulnerable at what time of the day and officials can send an alert, ideally in an app, to the commuters to avoid. Even police patrolling can be done more efficiently. Currently Los-Angeles police department uses a similar predictive analytics.

AIM: What are the most significant challenges you face being in the forefront of analytics space?

PG: Some of the main issue in the analytics space in India would be: (i) lack of proper data. Even the CRM data are not that great. Customer demographics almost always is not filled out properly. We have just started to be data centric, so have a long way to go; (ii) Appreciation of advanced modeling. In most of the cases a simple (not so great result) solution becomes fine (iii) Lack of manpower. I guess, India is yet to understand that Analytics is not IT!! We need to create an ecosystem where proper analytics training is given  (iv) lack of collaboration between industry and academia. While some of the top Indian industry says that Indian schools does not come forward, it is also true (based on my experience) these companies welcome a western schools/scholar with much more open hand than the counterpart in India.

AIM: How did you start your career in analytics?

PG: Well, being trained as a statistician, analytics is a natural entry for me. While I was doing mostly health analytics while I was in USA, it is only when I came back and joined IIMB that I started taking interest in Business analytics. That way, IIMB has given me an excellent platform to nurture and continue my research.

AIM: How do you see Analytics evolving today in the industry as a whole? What are the most important contemporary trends that you see emerging in the Analytics space across the globe?

PG: Big data and analytics both are in the evolving stage right now and getting huge appreciation and scope globally. I believe this is the next big thing. However, India is yet to make its name on this. Our analytics industry is mostly service driven and unless we also develop state-of-art products we can not make a name. This is where an industry and academic collaboration becomes so important.

The recent trend in analytics, as I see, is the wonderful marriage of social media, machine learning, computer science and statistics.  Lots of developments are happening in these individual fields as well as combining these. This is happening globally.

Some of the other things happening in analytics are Bayesian methods for real-time information updating (there is no other way to do it!), high dimensional regression, sparse regression (with extreme amount of zero data) and Large P-Large N data modeling.

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AIM: What do you think is the state of analytics education in India? How does it compare to the global scenario?

PG: I would say analytics education in India is very poor. Either we have people who are trained in quantitative techniques who does not understand the business OR we have MBA’s who are not well trained in quants Modeling. Ideally an analytics training should be inter-departmental, where students get trained in computer science by the computer science department etc. We are yet to have such kind of programme.

AIM: What according to you are some of the things that analytics service providers and start-ups should do? What should be the path ahead for them?

PG: I think, they should try to develop product rather becoming service oriented. There is a tremendous growth potential only if there is something new they can offer. I see a lot of start-up analytics firms and often I wonder how they are different. This differential is very important and the more they tie up with academic institutions the better it can be. Collaborating with academic institutes will help them in getting fresh ways of solving problems.

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Biography of Dr Pulak Ghosh

Prior to joining IIMB in July 2009 Professor Pulak Ghosh served as Associate Director, Novartis Pharmaceuticals, USA; Assistant Professor, Department of Statistics, Georgia State University, Associate Professor at Emory University, USA. He had also served on National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant review panel. Professor Ghosh is a visiting faculty at many national and international institutions.

Professor Ghosh's key specializations are in various fields  including Quantitative Finance, Econometrics, Social Network data, Political Science, Biostatistics, Bayesian Statistics, Multivariate Longitudinal Survival Data, Non Parametric Bayesian Spatial and Spatiotemporal Modeling, Change-Point problem among others.

Professor Ghosh has made significant contribution in the Cancer incidence and mortality rate.

Professor Pulak Ghosh obtained his PhD in Statistics from Oakland University, USA in 2003.

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