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Great scope for joint learning, big data

India and Japan could work well together in health, energy, finance, nuclear safety and disaster preparedness.

Dr Sunil Chacko & Dr Kiyoshi Kurokawa  Tokyo | 30th Aug 2014

The Delhi Metro is a highly successful example of cooperation between India and Japan on smart, high-impact projects.

oth Japan and India have significant problems to be addressed, but both countries are highly complementary. Factors seen as a weakness in one country are often a strength in the other. For instance, the demographic decline of Japan is more than compensated for by the growing population, especially of the young, in India. But the connections are yet to be made. Also, we have reached a fortuitous intersection of rising data availability at lower cost, data needs to analyse and act on core issues, and an increasingly educated populace in both countries that can appreciate the value of new insights that save time and money. Thus India and Japan are ripe for innovations, fueled by the insights, technologies, processes and systems that can be jointly designed, developed, and deployed. Great possibilities therefore exist for increasing the share of the proverbial economic pie for both countries.

Big data is all about correlations. In the world of little data, it was essential to come up with a hypothesis, then test it, and reject or accept it. But the hypothesis itself was often irrelevant or flawed, thereby wasting resources on questions that were not pertinent. Today, the massive amount of data can yield fascinating statistical associations and correlations — essential to defining optimal pathways in resource-constrained environments. A recent example is the realisation that when large numbers of people in a geographic area search online for flu-related terms, it is predictive of flu in that area. It can take much longer for the health system to detect incidence by aggregating data from health centers and hospitals. The early warning can enable epidemiological measures to stem the outbreak.

Correlation quantifies the statistical relationship between data values. When they are highly correlated, a change in one set of data is predictive of a change in the other. Although association and correlation only tell us what is happening, not why, in many cases, knowing the what is sufficient for the designated purpose.

However, big data is not defined necessarily by volume. One can test hypotheses in big data of limited sizes, then test such results/hypotheses for universality by comparing with other data sources, for example in other regions or municipalities. Many people tend to think of big data as collecting more and more data, but how to use it is critical. Such testing — easy to run — versus any real conventional, often costly, experiments will also help identify the weaknesses of the data set. Some people think size matters, and collect more digital garbage, but that can merely lead to more "garbage out."

Another example is of tracking toll-booth data and vehicular traffic over a particular bridge by point of sales software and sensors. This can make revenue models reflect reality and modulate the replacement cycle for infrastructure.

Anecdotal stories are moving, but when anecdotal evidence gets quantified and recorded and aggregated, they can become convincing evidence to promote change. Indeed, much of available data is often not digitised, and so needs to be converted into a quantified format, enabling tabulation, recording, analysis and reorganisation.

Shopping services such as utilise big data to predict choices, in effect to categorise various types of demand in comparison shopping. The original technology for that came from a group of young Indian engineers at Junglee Corp., who sold their company and technology to in 1998. It is puzzling why, after so many years, similar methodologies are not used to predict demand in other spheres. Yet, India has pioneered a frugal innovation model that is making waves and potentially can help Japan too, because wealthy Japan is also now facing resource-constraints as its aging population puts pressure on a shrinking labour pool.

We now discuss a few potential issues per topic where big data analysis can help Japan and India shape a better future.


India is rapidly increasing government spending on healthcare, from the current level of about 1% to 2.5% by around 2017 of the $1 trillion GDP economy that is growing at over 5%, and economic growth is expected to accelerate as reform measures further take hold. However, such increase in health spending requires a superior level of management, as well as tools and training, in addition to procedures, processes, logistics chains, and indeed those processes should receive adequate supervision, oversight and regulation and must be based on empirical evidence — providing great rationale for enhanced utilisation of Big Data.

Meanwhile, today, already 4% of GDP in India is spent on health, directly by patients and their families, as well as companies reimbursing medical costs or paying out on insurance — thus the primary means of financing healthcare in India is through private, non-governmental sources. This is in sharp contrast to Japan's universal coverage through a publicly funded and managed system. Thus, again, there are serendipitous opportunities to learn from each other, while at the same time reforming existing operational and financing arrangements.

There has been progress: the Indian National Rural Health Mission, on which $15 billion has been spent since 2005 has augmented India's public health system especially in neglected regions, and made contributions to steady decline in maternal and child mortality. India has a history of powerful advocacy for rural health and development, given its very strong principles of democracy, and NGOs in healthcare, such as SEWA (maternal and child health), Aravind (mass cataract surgery), Christian Mission Hospitals, Sree Ramakrishna Mission Hospitals & Aga Khan Health Services (primary, general and specialised medical care), and focused societies such as the Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Societies are respected for their efforts to "reach the unreached."

The effective deployment of IT in healthcare service processes could serve as a tool to counter cost-related pressure and offer acceptable means of monitoring, analysis and intervention, which would keep universal healthcare goals within reach for all, in both the public and private sectors.

Models that work in India and Japan are easily exportable to other countries as well via easier access to the Internet through smartphones and other gadgets, and social networks.


Significant imbalance exists between energy supply and demand in India, especially in the context of rising demand. Meanwhile Japan has a 120% excess of supply. Further, the national grid in India is old and has multiple technical problems. In a certain sense, the ultimate application of a data-rich system could well be the matching of supply and demand for electricity, nationwide, in effect for 1.2 billion people. That will require nationwide IT intensive "smart systems" that don't exist at present. That is why there is significant load-shedding, especially in rural far-flung areas.

Japan-India cooperation can demonstrate leadership in creating smart grids, with more localised energy sources, more renewables, and continuous visualising of electric current and rooftop generators' and users' cash values, thus raising awareness of real-time electric usage.

Verifiably tracking carbon reduction through the usage of new technologies in renewable energy is one potential application of big data. Since there are plans for massive decentralisation of renewable energy generation, this becomes particularly pertinent. Japan is working on a new bilateral mechanism to complement the multilateral, and Japan-India collaboration in energy for carbon reduction can form a solid pillar of the post-Kyoto protocol era. 

Japan-India cooperation can demonstrate leadership in creating smart grids, with more localised energy sources, more renewables, and continuous visualising of electric current and rooftop generators’ and users’ cash values, thus raising awareness of real-time electric usage.

Further, by India constantly using archaic bidding rules in place for decades, the lowest bid becomes the purchasable item, that in turn often is the lowest life-cycle one too, thereby breaking down early. Photovoltaic (PV) panels is a case in point where PV that has been producing energy for 30 years, verifiably, is ranked lower in government bidding than lower-cost PV that is produced by companies that themselves do not even have a five-year history or are financially shaky, thereby negating possibility for replacement of cells or panels should they break down.

There are other areas for collaboration, including potential joint procurement of natural gas that can enable lowered cost for both countries through economies of scale. Therefore, closely monitoring the price differential between various sources of natural gas on an ongoing basis is one application.


An intolerably high interest rate regime exists in India, risking bankruptcy for companies borrowing at 14%, thereby extinguishing possibilities for job generation that is the utmost need of the hour. It is here that Japan's over $1 trillion of surplus low-cost capital can be utilised to achieve the "surplus growth" in India and other countries that can propel millions out of poverty. Especially for vital infrastructure where returns can be indirect, new low-cost funds are essential, and Japan can deploy its capital in new modalities that can achieve the accelerated growth needed in India, and achieve for Japan the basic return on investment that has been missing in Japan's "lost economic decades." The absence of continuous financial monitoring made financial investments hard to track in the "lost decades." Indeed, there is often little data on small and medium Japanese enterprises. By new data modalities, comfort can be provided to investing institutions including through accelerated data generation and analysis of functioning demonstration models of applicable technology.

The realisation that many of the some 70 million Indian labourers and masons working on construction sites do not have bank accounts, insist on being paid in cash, and fear having to report to tax authorities since they erroneously worry that their income may go above the taxable limit, in turn impacts Indian GDP growth by making more transactions part of the "informal and unreported economy." Some have estimated Indian GDP to be at least double the official numbers. To figure in the GDP, data must generally enter formal accounts — but so long as the fear of the taxman exists, people tend to underreport or not report. That is one reason why some have advocated for abolishing the income tax. Many hundreds of millions of others also behave similarly when it comes to reporting income. The Indian government is taking active steps to enable bank accounts for all, and Prime Minister Modi spoke about it on Independence Day. And, the recognition that India is a far larger economy than is stated in official accounts can provide for, in itself, greater risk management. 

Mitsubishi’s smart grid pilot project in Japan could prove a viable model for India.

There is scope for mobile phone-banking and money transfer, notwithstanding issues of hacking. When a major Japanese bank, Long-Term Credit Bank went bankrupt under a $50 billion mountain of non-performing loans and was nationalised, it went through restructuring and later became Shinsei Bank, the head of banking (IT) infrastructure was an Indian with prior experience at Citibank and he brought many Indian experts to create new accounting systems — symbolic of the digital age, going beyond borders.

Government is even ­promoting mobile branches of government banks. India, with over 900 million mobile phone connections, is an ideal field laboratory for the extensive applications of IT-enabled mobile innovations. Mobile phones already are widely used for innovative applications, such as by fishermen who negotiate price and quantity even before landing on the shore, and mobile phone applications that sense tremours in users that could be early indications of Parkinson's disease. Phones even function as a physiotherapy tool for recovering stroke patients — the patient have to make complex finger movements on the smart screen as they attempt to write and draw. But as a sensory device and the distal component of sensory networks amenable to data analysis, their use may only just be beginning.

Nuclear Safety

We have believed that the occurrence of another incident of the scale of Fukushima will end the worldwide nuclear industry, into which governments have poured vast, precious resources over decades. Japan and India are negotiating collaboration on nuclear energy. The Japanese Parliamentary Commission (formally titled the Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission or NAIIC) made far-reaching cogent recommendations for reform, which are increasingly being adopted worldwide according to the US Congress' (Parliament) General Accountability Office that has tracked worldwide safety measures. This was confirmed very recently as well by the venerable US National Academy of Sciences that examined effects on the safety of US nuclear facilities as a result of the studies on the Fukushima disaster.

The full impact of the Japanese nuclear incident in communities and agriculture production even in neighbouring prefectures, food sales from the region and indeed tourism has still not been quantified. Many accidents in nuclear plants around the world go unreported and are covered up under the veil of "national security."

Preventing another nuclear calamity should be the need for all, and therefore having a range of early-warning systems and sensors to detect early problems is in the national interests of both countries. For example, radiation leaks cannot be covered up permanently in this Internet era and time of whistleblowers (just ask Ranbaxy about the impact of whistleblowing). Similarly, the threats to the existence of fishing communities and the damage to pristine fishing areas from, for example, excessive deaths of fish caused by super-heated water pumped back into the ocean after utilisation in cooling, can build resentment, even if the central government has approved the plant.

Today there is limited ability to hide behind bureaucratic curtains of convenience. Rather, making a safety-first culture is paramount. As is giving confidence to all through sophisticated sensors and early warning systems of all kinds, including those points mentioned in the NAIIC Report, such as auditing whether or not corrective steps were taken after flaws were detected or technology changed.

Disaster Preparedness

Both of us joined to honour the Indian National Disaster Response Force that served in Japan after the horrific earthquake and tsunami. Disaster management expertise should be jointly built in the two countries, again focusing on complementary strengths and needs. Rural development in India and disaster management in Japan share common challenges and goals: lifelines such as power, water and communication, and infrastructure all become public health and development issues when millions of lives are at risk. Early warning systems operating through alerts directly to cell phones can save lives, especially in coastal communities that survive on fishing and are prone to hurricanes and more.

There must be ample opportunities for collaboration and shared learning.


Big Data provides the catalytic factor that sparks innovation to meet rising expectations from the now proverbial Indian "aspirational class" — the rising tide of the largest group of young people in any country in the world: 770 million people in India are below the age of 35, with 385 million people being under 15. Just as significant financial savings have been made in business through processes re-engineering, or in energy through the use of IT-based energy monitoring and control, healthcare processes can be streamlined by the use of IT, thereby reducing costs. India has been the outsourcing partner for these process innovations for the West, and now can do so for both India itself and Japan.

Efforts at joint study should not be seen to be yet another bureaucratic exercise where bureaucrats of old-fashioned institutions corner it as their turf. Further, it is important to remember that real experience touches the heart, builds character and enables adaptability, whereas digital analysis and meta-analysis only touch the mind.

It is, after all, a mix of heart and mind that is central in policy and decision-making.

Dr Chacko was the founding assistant director of Harvard University's International Health Research Commission. He is a professor, and advises on the Maharashtra-Japan relationship. Dr Kurokawa was science advisor to Prime Minister Abe, chaired the Japanese Parliamentary Commission on the nuclear incident at Fukushima, served on the Indian Government's external advisory committee on the National Rural Health Mission, and is a professor at Japan's preeminent National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.

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