By Dr. Ranga Prabodanie
(The first part of this article appeared yesterday (05)
The previous part of this article series explained how the great insurgence of digital data has revolutionized the institutional decision-making process in both business and governance. This latter part will look at the Sri Lankan context: Where we are currently and the way forward to a data-driven decision-making culture. Let’s first have a glance at how decisions are made in data-intensive public services.
Schools, universities and vocational training institutions, throughout the country, collect, record and report data on admissions, enrolment, completion, drop-outs, results, graduations and expenditure for various programmes, courses and subjects. The Examinations Department does have digital records of GCE O/L and A/L results. However, the data is used only for the preparation of annual statistical reports, rather than for identifying and resolving problems. Data-driven decision -making extends well beyond preparation of reports. To make informed decisions on new subject streams, curriculum revision, subject promotion, funding and resource allocation, education data should be explored for trends and associations which raise concerns. To ensure equity in resource allocation, inputs and outputs, produced by education institutions, should be compared using appropriate analytical methods. Analysis of data from industry and other stakeholders is also important to identify the skills in demand and academic disciplines with greater potential for entrepreneurship, employment and scientific innovation.
Public health records which include data on patients hospitalisations, symptoms, diagnosis, treatments, progress and side-effects, encompass valuable insights on emerging diseases, their causes, case rates, recovery rates, death rates, hospital congestion, bed occupation, treatment costs, waiting times, medication efficacies and vulnerable groups which could provide directions for healthcare management and budgeting. There is an urgent need for health records to be digitised and analysed to glean emerging trends, patterns and associations. Though some progress has been made in healthcare analytics, for example in understanding the drivers of Dengue outbreaks, the patterns, trends and socioeconomic implications of most widespread diseases are poorly understood.
Lack of competence in health data analytics was evident in the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. There were instances where even the number of deaths resulting from COVID-19 were misreported and revised. We have seen various professionals, making claims, in the media, such as “next two weeks are critical”, “the country should be closed for three weeks” and “people are dying at home because they avoid going to hospitals”, but what we never hear is, based on what data, over which time period, analysed using which methods, such insights were derived. Sri Lanka has a well-educated population capable of differentiating facts supported by data from mere human perceptions, and perhaps, that is why they do not listen to such claims.
If you listen to the BBC news, you would often hear them reporting the status of COVID-19 in the UK directly citing the source as “according to ONS (Office for National Statistics) estimates”. Then they may present the information with relevant comparisons as, for example, “COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in England and Wales in September 2021, accounting for 6.6 percent of registered deaths in England and 8.5 percent of deaths in Wales. The two leading causes of death in both countries were ….” In Sri Lanka, we rarely hear such alarming comparisons,based on real data, but poorly supported individual projections, based on intuition. If data-driven analytical outcomes were shared with the public, people would be compelled to listen. Given the rising healthcare costs and economic depression, it is high time to invest in professional health data analytics to understand the trends and associations, to establish the right priorities, and to inform policies, accordingly.
Agriculture is another sector in which data driven decision-making can make a revolutionary change. Some recent developments in the country, including alleged hoarding of rice, milk and sugar to create artificial shortages and to increase prices, are related to lack of reliable data on agricultural production and imports. To avoid such malpractices, particularly in times of crisis, the government authorities have to keep track of data and continuously update and analyse the data to understand the drivers of market demand and supply. Since the government provides fertiliser subsidies, the agricultural authorities should have data on the acres of food crops to be harvested each season. If there are barriers to obtain reliable data, there is technology to help. A research group in Stanford University has developed a scalable yield mapper which can predict crop yield at the field scale based on satellite data. The system has been tested not only in the US but also in Africa and India. Development or acquisition of such technologies would help authorities to monitor the production and supply of food crops and make informed decisions on subsidies and imports.
The government decision to ban agricultural chemicals came under huge criticism as a poorly informed decision. Given the global appeal for organic food, the ban on agrochemicals can have favourable impacts on our economy and wellbeing. It could have secured a competitive advantage for Sri Lankan food products in the global market. Unfortunately, the decision came as a surprise, without supporting facts derived from real data. The evidence on the associations, if any, between water pollution and agrochemicals, chronic kidney disease and agrochemicals, food prices and agrochemical imports, organic fertiliser and agricultural output, and other relevant and measurable factors, should have been elaborated together with predicted outcomes of the decision, both positive and negative. Decisions that are apparently not supported by facts indicate lack of transparency and accountability, a basic principle of good governance. Lack of data-based reasoning can create chaos irrespective of whether a decision is right or wrong.
Continued monitoring of crime data is essential for ensuring public safety. Crime data analysis can reveal spatial and temporal patterns of crime, trends, hot spots, vulnerable groups and delinquents. Such insights can inform resource allocation for crime reduction and prevention. The general public is constantly bombarded, by the media, with fresh crime data, such as “a suspect possessing X grams of ICE was arrested in Y”, which now has no significance to the general public. Instead, if the media reports crime trends as, for example, “X percent of the suspects arrested with illegal drugs in 2020 were adolescents in the Y-Z age group…”, it would immediately trigger the attention of parents, schools and other stakeholders. The former is raw data which the analyst has to work with and the average citizen has little to do with, while the latter is one of the insights derived from data which should inform decision making and policy response and thus matters to everyone.
The previous sections of this article pointed out only a few areas of business, public service and governance which can be enhanced via data-driven decision -making. There are several other sectors, such as investment, energy, transport and conservation where data-driven decision making can make a shift towards sustainable development and better living. As a viable starting point, available public service data can be digitized and made available for analysis by researchers and relevant experts. Countries like the UK, the US and Australia have made health, crime and other data available on the public domain, allowing the researchers to explore the data and inform the government. However, a strong policy framework is needed to support, promote and facilitate data-driven decision-making in all those sectors.
Barriers should be expected, and initially, it would be more difficult to change attitudes than to set-up the basic infrastructure. The biggest barriers could be institutional bureaucracy, political influences, special interest groups and disruptive intentions motivated by the fear of losing power, status, and prerogatives. Strong leadership with a sound understanding of the need for evidence-based decision making is essential. Leaders have to understand that the status reported by officers and various parties with vested interests do not always reflect the reality on the ground and hence decisions made on such advice can lead to disasters. Real data is the only dependable and reliable source of ground reality which should guide policy.
The Sri Lankan government has already taken the initial steps to digitize public service data by establishing the Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA), committed to implementing digital-governance in Sri Lanka using ICT to access, exchange, and utilize information efficiently. In collaboration with ICTA, some government institutions have taken progressive steps towards data-driven decision making. The Department of Immigrations and Emigration, the Department of Motor Traffic and the Election Commission of Sri Lanka have already introduced online services which autonomously collect and store data in easily analysable formats. Still we have to develop a policy framework and a culture which supports regular analyses of collected data to generate insights and integrate them into the decision-making process.
Gone were the days when institutional decision making was an exercise of sheer authority; today it’s a complex process of collecting, analysing and generating insights from data. People no longer accept mere predictions without well elaborated facts and evidence, nor do they hesitate to challenge poorly informed decisions made on sheer intuition or authority. The data revolution is on-board, demanding all policies, regulations, restrictions, grants, expenses, and all kinds of decisions to be justified by facts and science. Everyone in business, governance and public service will have to change their attitudes and come to terms with the new decision-making culture driven by data and insights.
(The writer is a Senior Lecturer at Wayamba University, Sri Lanka. However, the views and opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not reflect the policy or position of any institution.)
Beyond the fiction of Alborada
By Sarath Chandrajeewa
“No matter how much a work of art is sweet, if it hides the truth and disregards humanity it can only be equalled to a beautiful but empty shell that attracts us.” (L.E. Kerbel – Russian Sculptor)
‘Alborada’ is the Spanish word for ‘the dawn’. In 1984, a music group was born in Peru, South America by the same name and they gained immense popularity. Their music mainly spread among people in North and South America. Their music’s foundation was the traditional music of Native Americans who lived in the Andes mountain range (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YTD2VDcxvNc). Likewise, in 2005 a soap opera by the same name was broadcast in Mexico, North America, which became very popular. This story was based on a series of events that took place during the historical period when Panama and Mexico were on the verge of gaining freedom from Spain (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8iM5s_d1vls).
In 2021 Asoka Handagama made a film in Sri Lanka by the same name, Alborada. The protagonist of this film is Pablo Neruda (1904 – 1973), the Chilean Consul in Ceylon for two years, from 1929 to 1931. He was very young, only 25, when he was appointed to this post. Ceylon was a colony at the time and he was lodged at No. 56, 42nd street, Wellawatte, Colombo 6, a place close to the sea. He had written down his reminiscences, in his own language, in book form. Later it was translated into English and published under the title ‘Memoirs’. According to this book, he had referred to his house as ‘My solitary bungalow’. It is said that the name Alborada was proposed by Pablo Neruda for the house of his friend, Lionel Wendt (1900 – 1944), who had lived at Guildford Crescent, Colombo 7.
Wendt too was fluent in several languages including English, Spanish and some other European languages. It is apparent, from documents and events that took place at that time, that his house, Alborada, had not been a lonely or tranquil place. It is clear that house Alborada was always full of people, such as painters, dancers, actors, photographers as well as pianists and those who enjoyed music. It was more like a cultural centre where discussions, art critiques and debates took place. (L.C. Van Geyzel, et al. . ‘Lionel Wendt: A Centennial tribute’. Lionel Wendt memorial fund; Sampath Bandara. . Lionel Wendt Kalava Saha Jeevithaya, Sarasavi Publication. [Sinhala]).
Though Handagama’s film was titled Alborada, the actual location, where incidents mentioned took place, was the Solitary Bungalow, the Chilean Consul’s official residence (Jamie James. . ‘Pablo Neruda’s life as a struggling Poet in Sri Lanka: A young poet’s Adventures in the Foreign Service’. Retrieved from https://lithub.com/pablo-nerudas-life-as-a-struggling-poet-in-sri-lanka/). In the 20th Century Sri Lankan context, Alborada was a distinguished active cultural centre. As a Sri Lankan cultural symbol, it directly connects with the character of Lionel Wendt. The creator of a work of art has the total freedom to create his work as he pleases and also to choose whatever name for the particular work. Handagama’s Alborada is similar to a poem, set to inspiring music. It includes a series of artistic figure compositions and features a number of skilled performing artistes. The trailer of Handagama’s film gave me some ideas.
When creating a work of art based on historical events, rather than myth and imaginary incidents, its trustworthiness depends on the people who faced the incident, the actual incidents, exact places, time period and the political and cultural background. Consequently, thorough research is necessary to identify accurate works based on historical incidents. It is difficult to rectify myths or false assumptions ingrained in society by unreliable books, documents, magazines or films. People will always embrace falsity, deception and myth, over the truth. Our culture as well as other cultures are replete with many such examples.
‘Alborada’ is the name of Lionel Wendt’s house. It is important as it is the house of a great Sri Lankan cultural icon of the last century. It is also important as Alborada was the name given to the renowned cultural centre of modern history, in Sri Lanka. It is from this place that art activities in our country were taken to the international arena. Alborada was situated at No. 18 old Guildford Crescent. Today this street is called Premasiri Kemadasa Mawatha. Six years after his demise, in 1950 his friend Harold Peiris (1905-1981) demolished his old house, Alborada, and built a gallery and a performing arts centre (Lionel Wendt Art Gallery and Theatre) to commemorate him. It was designed by painter Geoffrey Beling (1907 – 1992), Principal Art Inspector, Department of Education, and Bernard G. Thornley (Manel Fonseka. . ‘Rediscovering Lionel Wendt, Lionel Wendt Photographs’. Deutsche Bank Colombo and Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund).
When Lionel Wendt was alive, renowned upcountry master dancers, Amunugama Suramba and Nittawela Ukkuwa used to lodge at Alborada with their troupes, when they visited Colombo (Dancer Dr. Vaidyavathi Rajapakse, daughter of Master Dancer Suramba, Personal communication, 2017).
A documentary movie ‘Song of Ceylon’, directed by Basil Wright in 1934, was placed first at the Brussels International film festival in 1935. The creative segments of the movie were organized at Alborada. Manel Fonseka reported in an article, ‘Rediscovering Lionel Wendt’ in 1994, that in an interview with Julia Margaret Cameron, Basil Wright had said this about Lionel Wendt; “I think he was one of the greatest still photographers that ever lived. I should place him among the six best I’ve come across”.
As a result of discussions held at Alborada, master dancers Nittawela Ukkuwa and Amunugama Suramba were taken to England for a recording of drum beats, for the movie ‘Song of Ceylon’. This trip was sponsored by painter Harry Peiris (1904-1988). A dance school was established to develop up-country dance, in Gunnepana, Sirimalwatte, Kandy in the 1920s for Master Suramba, as a result of discussions held among a group led by Wendt and George Keyt (1901-1993). This troupe, which included the group of up-country dancers, Ukkuwa, Nittawela Gunaya, Punchi Gura and Sri Jayana Rajapakse, was later upgraded as the ‘Dance Ensemble of Central Lanka’. Jayana’s coming of age ceremony, inclusive of his ‘Ves ceremony’, held at the Degaldoruwa Rajamaha Viharaya, Kandy, in 1939, and Jayana’s dance training in India later, were all sponsored by Wendt (Dr. Vaidyavathi Rajapakse, Personal communication, 2017).
The first art inspector appointed to Sri Lanka, during the colonial era, was Charles Freegrove Winzer (1886-1940), an Englishman. He became close friends with Wendt, during his tenure in Sri Lanka. In the early years, Winzer and Wendt both wrote reviews on exhibitions of George Keyt, Justin Peiris Deraniyagala (1903-1967) and Geoffrey Beling. Wendt also translated Neruda’s art reviews from Spanish to English and published them (Manel Fonseka.
. ‘Rediscovering Lionel Wendt, Lionel Wendt Photographs’. Deutsche Bank Colombo and Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund).
The first avant-garde art movement in Sri Lanka, the ’43 Group’, was born under the leadership of Winzer and Wendt. The 43 Group consisted of Wendt (Chief Organizer), painters Harry Peiris (Chief Secretary), George Keyt, J.W.G Beling, Richard Gabriel (1924-2016), Ivan Peiris (1921-1988), Justin Pieris Deraniyagala, George Claessen (1909-1999), Aubrey Collette (1920-1992) and L.T.P Manjusri (1902-1982). The meetings of the 43 group were held at Alborada until Wendt’s death.
Afterwards the meetings were held at the house of Harry Peiris, Sapumal Foundation, Barnes Place (Sarath Chandrajeewa. . ‘Modern Art in Sri Lanka and its socio-political environment’, Artful resistance: contemporary Art from Sri Lanka, ZKF publishers. Germany).
As mentioned above, Pablo Neruda was only 25 when he was in Sri Lanka as the Chilean Ambassador (1929-1931). At 29, Wendt was four years older. In his book ‘Memoirs’, translated from Spanish into English by Hardie St. Martin, published by Penguin, Neruda had written thus about Wendt, on page 93.
“Little by little the impenetrable crust began to crack open and I struck up a few good friendships. At the same time, I discovered the younger generation, steeped in colonialist culture, who talked only about books just out in England. I found out that the pianist, photographer, critic and cinematographer Lionel Wendt was the central figure of a cultural life torn between the death rattles of the Empire and a human appraisal of the untapped values of Ceylon.
Lionel Wendt, who owned an extensive library and received all the latest books from England, got into the extravagant and generous habit of every week sending to my house, which was a good distance from the city, a cyclist loaded down with a sack of books. Thus, for some time, I read kilometers of English novels, among them the first edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, published privately in Florence” (Memoirs by Pablo Neruda, translated from Spanish by Hardie St. Martin . Penguin Books).
To be continued
Politics at its most primitive
By Uditha Devapriya
Review of Shaveen Bandaranayake’s Groundswell
Sarasavi Publications, 2021, 118 pages, Rs. 300
Half-way into Shaveen Bandaranayake’s novel, the Minister at the heart of the story tells us that the wealth he earned was people, not money. This is what politicians usually say. In the very least, it is what people who dislike politicians imagine they say.
Come to think of it, both amount to the same thing: we’ve turned politicians into objects of hate so much that we’ve come to love them for being who we think they are. Since we can’t control them in real life, we want to dominate them in popular fiction. The number of plays and films that poke fun at Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Ministers testify to how badly we want to be, not like them, but above them.
I am deeply suspicious of satire of that sort. In his excellent review of Pusswedilla, Hafeel Farisz tells us why political parody ends up serving the people and objects being parodied. This is not rocket science. At its best, political satire can move us to anger, disenchantment, and rebellion. At its worst, it can lull us into a sense of complacency with things as they are and as they seem. Farisz seemed to think that Pusswedilla epitomised the latter, reinforcing cultural stereotypes while offering no proper critique of the political establishment and the ruling class. I suppose you can say the same thing of Vijaya Nandasiri’s comedies: at his best, he makes us aware of the corruption of the political class; at his worst, he turns the corrupt into objects of love-hate, full of tropes and clichés but nothing substantive.
Shaveen Bandaranayake’s Groundswell reads as a political satire, though I have my doubts. Interweaving different stories and unfolding like a film, it goes back and forth. I won’t call its ending funny, but then how can any novel involving politics end on a funny note?
What Bandaranayake does in his story, short as it is, is to tell us that nothing good can come out of a system mired as much in corruption as in patronage. Since these people are tied to each other through politics, politics can prove to be their undoing. The way he forays into this theme and explores it, without regurgitating the usual political clichés, puts the novel at a notch or two above what you come across at, say, the Lionel Wendt. Without conforming to crude stereotypes, he attempts to humanise his characters, showing us why connections matter in politics, and why they don’t always work out.
The plot is simple enough. A woman comes across a corpse of a man at the foot of a hill one fine morning. She informs the police. By the looks of it, he seems to have lost his grip and fallen to his death. The story then rewinds to a political rally at that most obtrusive site of political rallies, a temple, where we are introduced to Sarath Aluwihare, a Minister trying to win his next election. We are also introduced to Sunil, a young man endeavouring to land a job. Events will unfold in a way that will bring the two of them together.
We are told that Sarath hails from a family of politicians, and that this family has been in politics for over two generations. The surname tells us as much. Sunil, on the other hand, is so unobtrusive that Shaveen doesn’t grant him the privilege of a surname, which, after all, is the preserve of those who matter. Like other village youths lacking employment and in dire search of a patron from the ruling class, Sunil clearly is not important; even when he finds a job as Aluwihare’s driver, his status rises, but not so much as to protect him from the novel’s ending. He is as destined to his place in life as Aluwihare is to his.
There are other characters though, and they have surnames. There is the head priest of the temple, for instance, an unabashed admirer of Aluwihare who uses him to achieve his not so religious purposes. Then there is Dileepa Jayanetti, who rises “from rags to riches” and ends up becoming the owner of the country’s biggest media house. Dileepa finds his way up by befriending the daughter of another prominent politician, who introduces him to Aluwihare, who in turn becomes his biggest benefactor. You sense the pattern here.
Halfway through the story, Dileepa hires Lasantha Muthukumarana, a journalist who tries to stick to the tenets of his trade. Dileepa does this because he thinks that by hiring the honest, he can keep them from being honest. For someone who is so bright and manipulative, this is far from the most brilliant decision he could have taken: a few pages later, Muthukumarana is investigating a hit-and-run incident which may be connected to Aluwihare.
In Bandaranayake’s world, everyone seems to know everyone else. That is why it comes to no surprise that the man run down by a vehicle in the middle of the night should have been married to a woman Aluwihare just happened to hire at his Ministry, and that she should be rumoured to have formed the object of Aluwihare’s affections. That Lasantha thought for a moment that a news report linking all this to a prominent Minister would make it in a paper linked to and blessed by that Minister is, of course, intriguing. But he tries to get it published it anyway. When the predictable opprobrium follows and he finds he can’t get it in, the story moves to its inevitable and in many ways unsurprising conclusion.
In saying all this, I am by no means revealing the plot. In fact, surprising as it may seem, the plot is what least interests me about Bandaranayake’s novel. This is a narrative I have come across many times, in many forms. Bandaranayake takes great pains to make it all relevant to the immediate political situation, i.e. the one we are in, now. Those who manage to draw links between his characters and their “real-life counterparts” should, therefore, be forgiven for thinking that he has attempted political critique masquerading as satire. My interest in it, then, has less to do with the novel than the genre it belongs to.
If Groundswell can be called a satire, it is satirical only to the extent that his characters are caricatures. Yet, as I implied earlier, it is not a satire in the way that a work like Pusswedilla is. The characters fit into preconceived and familiar patterns, but that doesn’t make them the clichéd tropes they turn into elsewhere. These characters are more rounded, certainly more complex. Sarath Aluwihare, for instance, does not possess the overstuffed tummy his counterparts from countless parodies do, while Sunil doesn’t become a Renfield type figure hell bent on catering to his “Master.” Even though Bandaranayake can be facetious, and is pugnacious, he refuses to dabble in the kind of satirical humour which could have turned his story into a Vijaya Nandasiri style parody of politics in Sri Lanka.
Depending on how you view it, this may be the strongest point or the biggest weakness in Bandaranayake’s novel. Groundswell makes several important points, and they should be considered pertinent whether they be couched the language of satire or of serious political critique. The medium is hardly the message, contrary to what people might say, and the way you communicate your ideas should not really impact the importance of those ideas.
And yet, there are one or two episodes which reveal Bandaranayake’s funny side. It is here that the disjuncture between the satirical undertones and the ponderous overtones of the narrative, and the author’s voice, proves fatal to the development of the story.
Bandaranayake is at his best when he is setting up situations, and these situations are, all things considered, effective in setting up the plot. He tries to create atmosphere, and does a good job of laying the context. But when each and every point is prefaced by laboriously long explanations of social phenomena, such as the separation between temple and State in Sri Lanka, or the wretched fate encountered by a million or so menial workers in West Asia, you struggle to distinguish between the narrative and the commentary.
For local readers, these explanations will at best be passé. I suspect they will be for foreign readers as well. Groundswell is a novel, or more correctly a novella, which could have been shorter, tighter, and more effective without them. Not surprisingly, the story gains strength when Bandaranayake cuts to the chase, and loses track when he does not.
I have read this kind of story many times before. What makes this one interesting is that it is Bandaranayake’s first attempt at fiction, and that, for a first attempt, it’s damn good. Even within its limits, he has come up with something enjoyable. That I enjoyed the book, and of course the brilliant illustrations that more than just decorate it*, is why I wish it were leaner, shorter, and tighter. Less can be more. More often than not, it is.
* With one exception: the eighth drawing depicts a scene that, if you think about it carefully, is at odds with the text on the opposite page.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thirty two little ballerinas win awards at TBSC’s 2021 prize giving
Text and pictures by
PRIYAN DE SILVA
Thirty two little ballerinas were presented with certificates of achievements and awards at the 2021 prize giving of The Ballet school of Colombo (TBSC) held recently.
Directors of TBSC Tara Cooke and Romina Gyi said that they were extremely proud of the achievements of their charges and thanked the students and parents for their dedication in attending classes diligently despite the trying conditions.
Certificates of achievement were awarded in the baby ballet, junior ballet and intermediate ballet categories to students who excelled in pre-classical and pre-jazz ballet.
Debbie McRitchie, International Director of the Commonwealth Society of Teachers of Dancing (to which TBSC is affiliated), in her congratulatory message thanked the parents for investing in their childrens dance education and the teachers of TBSC for preparing the candidates. She said that dance is like life and is a journey but not a destination and encouraged all stakeholders to work harder.
The prize giving was a proud moment for both students and parents as it was a parent who presented the certificates of achievement to their child. Five-year-old Shenaya de Alwis Samarasinghe was the youngest candidate at the prize giving, passing with honours in pre-classical ballet.
The Ballet School of Colombo was the former ‘Oosha Garten Sschool of Ballet’ pioneered by the late Kalasuri Oosha Saravanamuttu-Wijesinghe and was instituted as the ‘The Ballet School of Colombo’ in 2016.
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