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How data intelligence improves companies’ decision making – Towntalk CEO

Folake Edun (née Fajemirokun), Chief Executive Officer, of Towntalk Solutions in this interview with BusinessDay’s Frank Eleanya, speaks on the importance of leveraging data intelligence to make informed decisions

What is Towntalk’s mission as a company?

The mission of the company is basically to bridge the data gap problem that is very prevalent in developing countries like Nigeria. So speaking of security, for example, it’s difficult to get any information on what is happening at the moment, in real-time, because a lot of that data that you need on the ground is very inaccessible. And often when you get that information. It’s too late. The data could be that is needed to get you out of any incident or to respond to that incident.

It could also be very fragmented. This makes it very difficult for anyone, whether we’re talking about individuals, businesses, the government to make any key decisions.

Basically, as a company, we believe in the power of having the right information to facilitate making informed decisions at every level of society.

What is data intelligence?

So it’s one thing having access to data; a lot of businesses do have access to a lot of data. However, data intelligence is where you use technology to make sense of that data for it to be used to make decisions and to allow you to take decisive actions in real-time.

For example, if you look at a bank, it may have a lot of data on the customers’ demographics, their spending habits, etc and they will just not do anything about it. However, using data intelligence, they could then analyse that data to determine the sort of financial products that customers wouldn’t be best suited to that particular customer, whether or not to give a loan to the customer and at what terms, or even where to install an ATM. That decision could be based on understanding where your customers are withdrawing money the most using data from other banks. It is essentially using that data to make sense of something to help facilitate decision-making.

To what extent do you think the poor data governance, data fragmentation in Nigeria affects policy making?

As you rightly said, the data is very fragmented. And it’s not just that it is fragmented, the data is also messy and inaccessible. This issue directly affects policy making because data, not just any data, but meaningful data about people, about businesses across the country, are required to make decisions that affect those same people and businesses. This is essentially what policies do.

Without the relevant data, it’s also very difficult to understand the impact that any policy is having, because how can you measure this if you don’t have the data from before or after.

Another issue that data could help with is that a lot of the policies that we have in place in Nigeria, doesn’t take account of the nuances or the local context of Nigeria. A lot of them are policies that have worked elsewhere, and have just been lifted and implemented here without understanding how it would work. There is a need to incorporate the relevant research and data to make these policies more relevant to our Nigerian context.

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Can you share with us some of the data you have collected so far?

We have collected over 30,000 security incidents over the last 10 years, and we’re constantly collecting every day. We’ve collected over 10,000 emergency contact numbers across the country. We’ve also collected data on pre-planned events, and the weather and other environmental conditions that may affect your mobility.

All of this data is captured by both online and offline means. For example, some of our security incidents are pulled from our area, mobile app, which is accessible to anyone and the app stores and allows people to report incidents and access cold contacts from our emergency response database that we’ve put together. We also have an in-house intelligence team that uses their network across the country to gather and verify data incidents.

What are the challenges you face while collecting data?

The challenges are mainly in two categories: the access to the data as well as the validity of that data. It’s like, how are you sure that the data that you’re using is valid, particularly in a time where fake news is very ripe. It’s very important to be sure that the data you are working with is original.

At Towntalk we are very focused on this and we use a multi-level approach for verifying data. We triangulate both online and offline data. Why we always consider offline is that in this part of the world, a lot of the data and a lot of the information we’re looking for is not online. So you always have to use both the human element as well as the technology element. We triangulate all these data points; online and offline as well to try and understand the degree of veracity of that data.

We also use machine learning methodologies to understand trends and identify certain characteristics of the data that will affect how valid or how true that piece of information is and what that piece of data is. For example, how long after the incident happened was the data captured or how many people close to that incident have reported that the same incident has happened. We try to understand the circumstances around the data being reported as well.

What is your perspective in data analysis in Africa as a whole?

It is an extremely frustrating exercise. A lot of the time you get stuck trying to conduct data analysis at the first step which is the data gathering – as you can’t find any. However, people across the continent are becoming more and more aware of the importance of data. For example you have fin tech companies that use your data to advise you on how best to save and invest and are very transparent about the data they are utilising. And these companies are finding creative ways to capture the unbanked population that traditional banks have not been able to attract. And so we are clearly heading in the right direction.

What is your view of data regulation or privacy in Nigeria?

I think what we have with NDPR is a step in the right direction, I think we’ve been very serious with security and data privacy issues. And that’s because we see the direction the world is in or is going in. And we also see the direction Nigeria is growing in with the implementation of GDPR, and NDPR.

However, having a document or policy in place is different from ensuring that businesses are following through. So we have to make sure that we’re already abiding by those rules. We’ve been very serious about security and data privacy straight from the beginning of Towntalk, in 2018.

We’ve made sure that we are compliant with both GDPR and NDPR. We ensure that all the data that we capture is at the consent of its owner,

On the other hand, we also make sure that we all always have budgets to perform penetration tests. These tests ensure that our platforms and the data are secure from any unwanted access.

Which country has the best data practice and what can Nigeria learn from them?

The countries with the best data practices are typically in the EU due to the introduction of GDPR which went into effect in May 2018, and which governs the protection of data of EU citizens no matter where they are in the world. Our Nigerian equivalent, NDPR, was strongly influenced by GDPR and hence a lot of the fundamental principles are very similar. Despite the similarities of the two regulations, in Nigeria there is a need to enforce compliance to the rules set out in the regulation; at the moment it is very typical for companies to capture and hold your data without your consent, with no consequences. Meanwhile GDPR is very explicit about reporting of data breaches and the subsequent fines, which automatically act as a deterrent to data malpractice.

What can be done to overcome trust issues in terms of sharing data between organisations, bearing in mind that the CBN has released a draft of Open Banking?

I think it’s necessary to understand the value of such an exercise because as I mentioned, a lot of these banks have a lot of data on their consumers. But there’s no benefit to it if it’s just sitting there.

And some direct benefits impact the bank itself. For example, for someone using another bank’s ATM, it charges the bank money. However, if you have a situation where you are tracking the use of ATMs, and you understand that there’s a specific location, where all your consumers or customers are using ATMs of other banks, you can make the strategic decision to install your ATM there to avoid those charges, knowing that it will be used.

So it is understanding how that data will be used to benefit the business. Also, everybody cannot do everything. Banks are the collectors of data, but you have all these fintech companies that are utilising this sort of data to analyse and to help their customers make more informed decisions. The benefit still comes to the bank that owns the data. We can’t do without a traditional bank. I think the answer is partnering with these organisations.

Many reports have identified the human angle as the weakest link to data security? How do you address such issues at towntalk?

I do agree with that. And, for that reason, you have to educate people. However, you can’t just trust people to do the right thing, so you have to implement some technology barriers or controls to help prevent certain things from happening. You have to put things in place to get people to regenerate their passwords, for instance. Often you have certain rules to increase the complexity of passwords. You also have all these apps that save your passwords for you.

At Towntalk when it comes to validating data. We use humans. They validate and verify the information on security incidents and things that are happening that are reported around them. But we restrict that to just people that are located near the incident.

We also use machine learning and technology to try and verify those incidents as well.

Given that data intelligence is just an emerging market, what’s the level of adoption so far in Nigeria?

In general, companies are becoming more aware of the importance of data, even in some traditional organisations where they don’t understand what to do with the data. They still understand that the data is important and the data is of some sort of value. I think that’s the first step.

These smaller tech and fintech companies are coming in and showing examples of how data can be used to power the organisation. There is marketing data that can be used to better the experience for your consumers for example. I think we’re moving in the right direction.

What are the trends that you see in data in Nigeria going forward and also what should we expect from townTalk soon?

I think the way we’re moving forward is that some of these organisations are partnering, or utilising technology companies to perform this data intelligence for them to help them understand the data, to provide some meaning to it. They can then use that meaning to make some strategic decisions around how to treat and manage their customers, and the structure their businesses operate in general. And I see that happening more and more often.

For Towntalk, we’re launching our security web platforms early next month. It’s an all-around solution that acts as an early warning tool for businesses that are operating in this very dynamic security space.

Specifically, we will be launching our security risk management tool, Pulse, at a webinar on 6th October 2021, where we will have a panel of security and business experts speaking on: Bridging the information gap: Proactive Risk Management in Nigeria. To register for the event, they can go to our website www.towntalk-solutions.com.

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