Background Concept Note

Digital connectivity has led to an exponential growth of data and has transformed the way data is collected, stored, analyzed, and used. Big data is an emerging paradigm applied to describe the vast amount of data, both structured and unstructured, that is generated and collected on a daily bases and is difficult to process using traditional software and databases. International data corporations have estimated that by 2020, the digital universe will be 44 zettabytes in size. This data is generated and collected via various mediums such as the internet, social media, communications, digital photos, services and businesses, and the internet of things (IoTs). Data has become a valuable resource, and with advances made in big data analysis and mining, many countries are working to acquire a leading edge in this new industry.

Big data is tied to the growth in computing power and is better understood by the four Vs: the volume, velocity, variety, and veracity. Big data and the interconnection of data offer numerous opportunities to governments and the private sectors to formulate strategies for development, enhance decision-making, improve service delivery, and support the growth of business and industries. In the Middle East, the government and the business sector were the early adopters of big data analytics, and though this is a new field, its value is being harnessed in various areas in the region. Big data integration is central to the development of infrastructure, relevant knowledge economy, and market orientations, in the Middle East.

To study the dynamics and applications of big data in the Middle East, the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) at Georgetown University Qatar, convened a roundtable on “Big Data in the Middle East.” This meeting brought together scholars, experts, and business practitioners in order to examine the topic through the political and socio-economic lens and study the unique technological opportunities it provides to various sectors of the economy. The research roundtable explored a wide range of topics, including social media, smart cities, refugees, healthcare, museums, etc.

While big data is a growing field, its value, impact, and utilization for social science research in the Middle East remains an understudied area. The information derived from data sources that are local to the region can be used by researchers for addressing many social science questions and measure social impact. Big data technology has enormous potential that can be leveraged to enhance the development and sustainability of various sectors significantly and can contribute to narrowing the knowledge gaps in social science research within shorter time frames. Even though big data is widely used by big corporations to deliver market-oriented services and consolidate their hold on regional and global markets, data collected from the region can help address social, political, environmental, and demographical issues that are currently being faced by the population in the Middle East.

Big data, or data in general, is only useful if and when meaningful and the right information can be extracted from it. Turning this information into insight is key to creating new innovative possibilities in sectors such as education, policy-making, healthcare, transportation, infrastructure, and efficient labor market. According to business analytics, the hydrocarbon sector is the most prevalent industry for big data use in the Middle East. The process of finding and producing hydrocarbons generates a large amount of data. Interpreting this data requires new technologies to drive faster results and make accurate decisions. Big data analytics in the hydrocarbon sector can help address the production of hydrocarbon, find new resources, and also provide ways in which the region can sustain the environment and identify trends to move to a low-carbon economy.

Social media has revolutionized the way people interact with each other and the world at large. In the Middle East, the medium was instrumental during the Arab spring, running political campaigns and elections, and is a vital platform for public discourse and debate. These activities generate large amounts of data that can be mined to address questions related to different socio-economic dynamics, class, society, and culture. Social media and networks have also become a tool through which public opinion and activities can be monitored and controlled by the state. However, one key factor in analyzing this data is the language it is produced; for example, in Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew, or Farsi. Many of the existing tools and technologies in place for processing the data are from the West and pose a challenge when it comes to analyzing data produced in these languages. Also, understanding the general phenomena that characterize social media in the Middle East is key to addressing social science research questions in the region.

In this era of big data, the healthcare sector is also aspiring to maximize the application for policy-driven research. In 2018, the Israeli government approved access to health data stored by the local health institutions for improving health services, research, and development. Researchers will now have access to the country’s health data, which is well maintained and routinely updated by the health maintenance organizations (HMOs). The project aims to share this information to derive insight and innovation in the field of medicine. Policy-makers and health practitioners now have a vast amount of data to arrive at evidence-based decisions.

According to Amnesty International, over four million refugees have fled the conflict in Syria, with the majority now in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. Sheltering, feeding, and providing essential healthcare is a vast undertaking requiring coordinated work from hundreds of governmental, private sector, and voluntary organizations. With such large numbers, logistics plays an important role, and technology-driven by data and analytics can be put to use in innovative and potentially life-saving ways. Researchers in Turkey are using big data to get a better understanding of the humanitarian emergency and are suggesting solutions, both technological and policy-related, tackling the problems faced by the refugees.

The concept of “Smart Cities” has gained a lot of attention in academia, by governments and businesses globally and more so in the Middle East in recent years. Projects like Smart Dubai (UAE), TASMU (QATAR), and the New Urban Agenda (NUA) and UN-Habitat Strategic Plan 20/25 (Egypt) aim to create urban cities that are monitored by digital devices. The infrastructure in these cities will produce and capture big data, and the information derived from this data will drive governance. The goal behind such initiatives is to gather real-time analysis of city life, new modes of urban governance, and provides the raw material for envisioning and enacting more efficient, sustainable, competitive, productive, open, and transparent cities. Other areas where big data and smart city technologies could prove beneficial include green information and communication technologies, sustainability, energy-aware systems, urban planning and living, and improving the quality of life.

A large amount of data is produced in museums on a daily bases, including data collected through cataloging, curating, conserving, and digitizing. Museums’ operational functions, such as communication, management, research, marketing, visitors and activities, educational activities, tours, and feedback from the visitors gathered both offline and online, also generates a large amount of data. Information extracted from this data provides insight into which collection items attract the most attention, which exhibit designs are preferred by the guests and which marketing strategies work best for gift shops and museum merchandise. These data sets can be further used to predict museum events, such as collection exhibitions and educational activities, in a way that maximizes visitor numbers, engagement, and participation. With a vast amount of data collected, researchers can address questions regarding audience interaction with art and culture.

To addresses these questions and challenges in the field of Big data and data science, CIRS convened this workshop, where invited scholars, experts, and professionals shed light on the key gaps in existing research and proposed ideas for future study.


 Article by Misba Bhatti, Research Analyst at CIRS