Exclusive: How an earthquake led to Nepal’s digital transformation

Interview with Nama Raj Budhathoki, Executive Director of Kathmandu Living Labs.

Two years on, and Nepal still faces the daunting challenge of rebuilding homes that were destroyed in the 2015 earthquake. Despite the country receiving $4.1 billion worth of pledges from foreign governments and international aid organisations, the process of reconstruction is “very slow”, and many Nepalis are still living in temporary shelters, the New York Times reported earlier this year. Here is where a small army of engineers armed with tablets are helping to make a difference, says Nama Raj Budhathoki. He is the Executive Director of Kathmandu Living Labs, a civic technology nonprofit which works with the government on open data and open mapping. To quickly and effectively collect data on damaged buildings and homes, the government took a “radically different” approach from the traditional pen-and-paper method of surveying, and decided to use digital technology, he says. Budhathoki shares with GovInsider how this massive undertaking “developed the confidence” of the government in digitisation, and how it is slowly opening its data to its citizens. Rebuilding Nepal Nama's Picture1 In the months after the disaster, “one of the first things that our government wanted to do was assess the level of damage”, Budhathoki explains. “You first need to know how many buildings are completely damaged or partially damaged, and where those buildings are,” he says. The Nepali government had to contend with the sheer scale and complexity of this endeavour. Nepal’s diverse topography meant that there was limited accessibility - it can take days to reach some of the more rural villages on foot, Budhathoki notes. Furthermore, surveyors would have to visit over a million affected buildings. So, the government recruited 2,500 engineers, each equipped with tablets, and sent them into the field to assess the extent of damage. “They went to every house, assessed and observed the building, collected data - it’s like a census,” Budhathoki explains. KLL designed and developed the app and other tech solutions for the entire project, and worked in partnership with seven government agencies. The engineers recorded GPS locations, took pictures, and collected sociodemographic data, such as residents’ level of income and age range. “It’s a very rich dataset,” Budhathoki says. There was no WiFi in some of these remote villages, so the engineers would make use of the telecommunications network to upload the data at the end of the day to a central database. IMG_20161222_132015-1024x576 The potential of data At the end of it all, the engineers had amassed data from over 1,050,000 houses in 31 Nepali districts - 9.39 terabytes’ worth. “People say this is the biggest mobile data collection in the world so far,” Budhathoki claims. [blockquote]“People say this is the biggest mobile data collection in the world so far.”[/blockquote] The “primary reason” for this data collection was to determine the level of damage of the affected houses, so that homeowners could receive funds from the government for reconstruction. However, Budhathoki believes that all of these data held untapped potential to “serve many purposes beyond damage assistance” - indeed, possibly as a “gold mine for rural development planning purposes”. The Nepali government is beginning to open up some of this data for public use, starting with anonymising them. “For a very minimal fee, you can get this entire dataset,” says Budhathoki, adding that Nepal made the announcement in June this year. This move to publish the data spurred some other government agencies to start using digital tools too. The Central Bureau of Statistics has already started using digital data collection methods in surveys, according to a KLL blog post. The government could also use mobile technologies to collect data for the country’s 2021 census. Crowdsourced mapping That fateful 2015 earthquake, and the immediate aftermath, imparted valuable lessons “from the data technology perspective”, Budhathoki says. As the country rebuilds, KLL hopes to put that learning experience to good use, and “prepare for any possibility of disaster” in the future, he adds. To that end, his lab is leading an open mapping initiative in Pokhara, a city 200 km west of Kathmandu. The “participatory mapping” project, which began about a year ago, largely relies on volunteers to upload the coordinates of buildings and streets through their smartphones, as they make their way around the city. “If you are eating at a restaurant which is not already on the map, you can map it out while you wait for your food,” Budhathoki says. A similar mapping initiative would cost the government “millions of dollars”, Budhathoki points out, “but [the] citizens are already there - they are walking, driving, hiking, bicycling - and they have access to technology”. pokhara map Participatory mapping is “something new” to the people of Pokhara, he says, and KLL is organising events and training sessions to reach out and help them understand its value and “basic philosophy”. Citizens coming together and making “small, incremental contributions” to what is fast becoming a very detailed map is “very different” from how Nepal has traditionally collected information, Budhathoki notes. He adds that parks, lakes and rivers have been fully mapped, and so have 80% of the city’s buildings. The Nepali government is slowly overcoming its “fear” of new ways of operating, Budhathoki says, and is “very positive” of digitisation. “They have started saying, ‘Now we should do all future services using digital technology’,” Budhathoki claims. Looking ahead, he hopes to see the government work more closely with its citizens to “fully realise” the potential of technology. “If government data is open to the public, and citizens have increasing access to digital tools, and these two things come together - lots of interesting things can happen,” he remarks. The devastating earthquake took thousands of lives and wrought chaos in the South Asian nation; these are sobering facts. But it kickstarted a data revolution in the government - which could mean a more open, inclusive future for Nepal. Innovation Labs World will be hosting a dedicated digital stream on 26 September 2017 for government officials to share lessons and best practices on digital and predictive services. Register today. Main image by DFID - UK Department for International DevelopmentCC BY 2.0 Other images from Kathmandu Living Labs