Inauguration of Prof. Dr. Mirjam van Reisen: international cooperation in the digital area

Prof. Dr. Mirjam van Reisen addressed the question of how to establish ways of sustainable and efficient international cooperation in the digital area in her inaugural lecture on Friday, 10 March 2017. The lecture was followed by the acceptance of her position as professor of Computing for Society at the University of Leiden

In this lecture, Prof. van Reisen took the audience back in time by recapping the events and technological obstacles that hindered an appropriate response to the Ebola crises in Liberia in 2014. Back then, Liberia was already troubled with an already fragile health system.The lack of digitalised data system exacerbated the situation in the country and made keeping track of the development of the crisis particularly difficult for Liberia. The West’s initiate response was to isolate the crisis and, hence, Liberia by by stopping any outgoing flights to the country. This did not prove to be a successful strategy and an incident of Ebola was eventually reported in the US in late September 2014. After this incident the international community realised that they could not respond to the crisis with isolation but that international cooperation was needed. The lack of a basic data collection system made it obvious how strongly new technology was needed in the fight against the disease. With support of the international community, satellites were deployed, and new data science techniques, data sharing and new mathematical models were developed. However, as soon as the peak of the crisis passed, satellite and connectivity providers left.  Data collected during the crises were suddenly out of reach for Liberians, held in inaccessible data-clouds and left Liberia once again in a fragile state in which a new Ebola crisis could emerge at any time, Prof. Van Reisen said.

This case showed the disruptive character of international cooperation in the digital era, Prof. van Reisen argued. As much as digital solutions provide remedy to unforeseen crises, they are often only a short-term response. There is a clear lack of long-term structural solutions that create a sustainable healthcare system able to prevent and to appropriately respond to crises, Prof. Van Reisen pointed out. Too often, technological solutions are not context-specific and country-specific differences of availability, development and accessibility to technologies are commonly not taken into account. Prof. van Reisen’s work shows that the connectivity system in developing countries is often different from industrialised countries. Many African countries do not rely on broadband but on satellite connection instead. Likewise overlooked: the large-scale use of mobile money for remittances to family and friends already exceeds financial aid and thereby gives strong support to economy in many developing countries.

Prov. van Reisen emphasised that in some areas digital tools might develop into fast and unexpected exciting innovations. In others, however, it might bring about negative unintended effects. Technologies are sensitive to initial conditions and region-specific factors can substantially influence the outcomes and developments in technology. This means that is essential to bear in mind that solutions in the West may not suffice as a template for developing countries. Her lecture finalised with the plea to “consider a new model of international cooperation, which seeks to build bridges, that seeks to understand progress from various contextualised interpretive frames.” Prof. van Reisen emphasised that international cooperation should build bridges between different realities and be understood as an opportunity to learn from one another.

However, there is a promising outlook.  Prof. van Reisen presented FAIR – a common data protocol which can form the basis of an open Internet of Data, making data Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable (FAIR). FAIR can be used as a protocol to build an Open Science Cloud which allows for the sharing of data while personal data protection is maintained.  In cooperation with local partners in East Africa, India and in West Africa Open Science Cloud nodes will be established and shall function as a public good everyone can benefit from. “I am convinced that the future of the digital era will be transformed by international cooperation through FAIR Data in which local nodes give value to it, while maintaining their ownership over data”, Prof. van Reisen predicted.

In the spirit of commitment to cooperation and with a clear dedication to contribute to a justice and sustainability in communities around the globe, Prof. van Reisen accepted the chair ‘Computing for Society’ at Leiden University.