16 March 2016

Let’s sort out data-lack issue soon

There's a difference between a drought and a flood, a cyclone and a tsunami.  Some calamities, for some, translate into instant death; others can cause death too but of a slow kind.  At the end, though, people die.  Predictability helps and prediction is predicated on accurate and adequate information.  Right now, we are suffering a heat wave.  In other times we've suffered floods.  Through all this, we suffer from a woeful information-lack. This article was first published in the Daily News on March 16, 2011, exactly 5 years ago.  

The world has known floods and droughts, cyclones and typhoons, tidal waves and tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions from the beginning of time. Nothing new about this except that these are climate-change days, times of inexplicable frequency of natural calamities. For all the technological advancement and sophisticated devices at our disposal we remain poverty stricken in the matter of predicting calamity, especially in terms of magnitude and consequence.

It is fashionable to divide calamities into two kinds, man-made and natural, but the distinctions continue to be blurred. It is increasingly clear that human beings are, as a species, far more ignorant than we care to admit. When ignorance marries arrogance the results tend to be less than happy. There are things we as a species can be proud of, for example the vast strides in the health sector but overall we have spent more time, energy and resources on killing each other and destroying the environment. We have shown that we are experts at self-annihilation.

We are today in damage-control mode and I am not saying this because of what happened in Japan a few days ago. We are so good at conflict and so bad at resolution that we’ve had to resolve ourselves to make do with ‘conflict management’. We are so good at precipitating disasters and so bad at disaster prevention that we have settled for ‘disaster management’.
We could console ourselves about the fact that communications technology has improved to a point where in the very least the people can be better informed about what hit them. We have the Internet now, we have mobile news updates, round-the-clock radio and television news broadcasts etc. If someone really wants to know something, even in a country such as ours, he or she will not be disappointed.

One can argue that knowing the name of what took away your house, memories, loved ones and the building blocks of dreams is hardly consolation, but then again the fraction-of-a-second earlier warning can save lives, sometimes even thousands of them.

This is why I was perturbed to receive an email from a Sri Lankan living overseas about the manifest sloth when it comes to the basics in information-provision. My friend, a marketing professional, working as head of merchandising at one of the top ten textile conglomerates in India who lives and works in Ludhiana, Punjab is planning to return to Sri Lanka to commence an agricultural project which will have the latest technology in protected agriculture. He is being trained by experts in this field and strongly believes that he could make a valuable contribution by providing employment to couple of needy people through this venture.

He had wanted to obtain some information relating to Galpatha, in the Kalutara District. He assumed (optimistically, as it turned out) that Meteorology Department website (www.meteo.slt.lk.wxfcs.html) would provide some data useful for his purpose. He was shocked to see the latest updated was on March 12, 2009 which is almost two years ago. He had then gone to their new web portal as directed (www.meteo.gov.lk) and it contained the legend, ‘coming soon’.

Sri Lanka did not step into the ‘Age of IT’ yesterday. We know that although not all government institutions are rolling in money, a website is not expensive to maintain. The Meteorological Department does a lot of good work and this particular miss should not be taken as indicative of overall inefficiency, lethargy and incompetence. Still, given that this is the 21st Century, that ‘Geographical Information Systems’ or GIS is no longer Greek in the Development Dictionary and the importance of agriculture, the Department has a critical role to play.

It is not just this Department that is to blame, I am sure. There is a lot of overlap in terms of responsibilities are areas of operation. Some Departments wait on others for better information and also because criticism is something they can do without.

At the end of the day, however, we are left without sufficient data and without any idea of when the relevant gaps will get filled. It could be that all the institutions that serve agriculture have suffered over the years due to an emphasis on either the service or industrial sector or because of a determined effort to undermine agriculture and thereby compromise the food security of the nation. Even if that were the case, it is time that clear policies are formulated and priorities decided upon.

Information is useful. The technology exists. The software is not expensive. Human resources are not lacking. Maybe the Meteorological Department will have their website up and running by tomorrow, maybe not. That’s just one part of the puzzle though.
An informed nation is considerably better equipped to handle the unforeseen. There are times between disasters when people can legitimately expect to operate in a context where the play of distinct factors can be predicted. Knowledge is of paramount import.

I am not sure if the world will survive but I am still breathing and so is my friend in India. It is good to be aware of threats. It is good to be optimistic too. Optimism, however, is founded on realities whose dimensions are known and understood. I think we can do better in this regard.

There’s data out there. It should be ‘in here’, so to speak.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who contributes a weekly column to the Daily Mirror.  He can be reached at malindasenevi@gmail.com