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How Much Longer Can We Continue to Overlook the “Power of Local”?

Sonja Betschart — Co-Founder, WeRobotics
The “view from below” while acquiring drone imagery in the middle of small-holder agriculture fields in rural Tanzania. Photo courtesy of WeRobotics.

Today, even the most remote areas of our planet can be observed without the need to ever set foot on foreign land. Advances in remote sensing combined with AI-analysis allow us to run predictive analytics on crop harvests and model the impact of climate change more precisely and quickly than ever before. While such data and forecasts can help inform better decisions thousands-of-miles away from the farms or the coastline, they run the risk of missing one critical element: the view from below.

In contrast, the use of small autonomous systems like aerial drones is necessarily localized. A person has to be physically present and engaged with her local community to secure the necessary permissions when using drones. As such, local drone operators always have the view from below, capturing the local context along with local idiosyncrasies.

The use of drones enables them to acquire a host of local data where and when they need it, in an easy, affordable and accessible way. This explains why drones are becoming more pervasive in local initiatives. Combined with other data sources and AI to support analysis, drone data not only fills an important data gap but also connects contextual information linked to the data—an advantage lost on satellites orbiting our planet thousands of miles away.

So why is it that locally-acquired drone data is often overlooked by international projects, especially when the local context is vital to their success? And, for that matter, why are most AI algorithms written thousands-of-miles away from where they are applied?

The answer is the digital divide.

At WeRobotics we believe that the solution must be localized to be respectful, sustainable, and effective.

While emerging technologies enable us to solve urgent social challenges in more timely and more efficient ways, the knowledge needed to apply them effectively and sustainably is not readily available to local experts who are best placed to solve these challenges.

At WeRobotics we believe that the solution must be localized to be respectful, sustainable, and thus, effective. Solutions are localized by combining three key elements: 1) local expertise and action, 2) local community and ecosystem building and 3) local application of emerging technologies. Our mission is to enable a growing network of local experts to solve humanitarian, development, environmental, and health problems by using robotics and AI solutions, such as drones, through a bottom-up approach, supported by best practices, ethical guidelines, and global sharing.

For example, our fast-growing network of Flying Labs—local knowledge hubs—is based on a franchise model that allows local experts and change-makers to come together and build their own local capacity and expertise on drones and AI in their country and region throughout the Global South. The network has expanded from 4 to over 22 Flying Labs in the last 12 months, all driven by local demand. We expect this growth to continue at a fast pace as existing Flying Labs help incubate new ones in neighbouring countries all while supporting each other through South-to-South collaboration.

This is the power of local – local experts who know how to find the best suited, timely and cost-effective solutions to the challenges and opportunities before them.

After all, who is better placed then Leka of Tanzania Flying Labs who has lived all his life in Dar es Salaam to understand the impact of seasonal floods in his fast-growing city? He is ready on site to map the floods with drones the same day the heavy rains batter the city. And who can create more reliable training data to adapt a machine-learning algorithm that enables automated change detection on the drone-acquired geospatial data than Ghati, who crosses the flooded parts of the city on her way to work? Together, they can keep track of how the river flows change, document what neighborhoods are flooded, count how many homes were lost and identify which new areas are in risk of flooding on a continuous basis.

And by doing so, the team of Tanzania Flying Labs is not only creating valuable and timely resources for their city’s disaster management teams, they are also making certain that any economic value that can be gained by addressing social challenges stays in their country rather than get outsourced to international experts who have never set foot in Tanzania or experienced a flood. And they inspire a new generation to create a new workforce in their country that takes matters into their hands.

This is the power of local – local experts who know how to find the best suited, timely and cost-effective solutions to the challenges and opportunities before them. After all, they have the best view from below.

Check out the other pieces below on our #data4good series leading up to SXSW 2019.

How Do We Ensure “Data for Good” Means Data for All? Consider These Three Principles
The Gender Gap in Innovation and How to Break the Digital Ceiling
Fusion: Innovation through Integration

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