5 Questions for… Dr. Iliya Nickelt

You’ re head of the new data lab, I see someone in a white lab coat in front of me, do you experiment with numbers?

 The advantage of data is that it can’t blow up in your face – at least rarely. But at least you are not exposed to any immediate dangers at the data lab table (laughs). 

We actually experiment with numbers – but on the computer. Data science is a buzzword meant to express: The original statistics is evolving. As Data Scientists, we focus more on software than statistics, and work a lot with small applications. We also adapt developments in software technology and try to quickly use new methods, such as machine learning. This is the latest field of research and we can expect very interesting progress.  

At the same time, the data scientist must always keep the goals of his organisation in mind – in our case, those of the ministry. He or she must be able to find, analyse and present the data that will contribute to achieving the organisation’s goals. 

Sounds like heavy fare. Why are you still so passionate about the topic?

 What machine learning – or so-called AI – can do today is really fascinating! Anyone who has ever had a conversation with an AI or looked at the results of art-generating AIs will probably be able to understand why this topic is so exciting!  

But of course, this is only the absolute pinnacle of the entire field. Data Science is most of all craft and classical work. We try to identify errors in large data sets or transform data in an automated way. These are the basics of our work, and you must be interested in that, too. But the exciting thing is that in the last 50 years, digitalisation and the explosion of data have opened a field that can offer many new findings. We still have to find out what is possible in this field and what has not yet been used sufficiently. So we can still change a lot here! I am pleased that the BMZ is developing and wants to use these advantages. 

The decisive factor is always the Final outcome. In the case of the data lab, what can we expect and why do we need it?

On the one hand, the German administration is not exactly the locomotive, but rather the last wagon around digitalization even in Europe we are just in the average range compared to other countries. In other words, we are 20 years behind with our technology. There are already many colleagues and exciting initiatives in the BMZ who are working on various projects and would like to contribute their ideas. We need to gather the knowledge and get away from working only with Excel and e-mails. 

On the other hand, I see an important need to create a better understanding among the public and in external presentation of what development cooperation does. I believe we can achieve a great deal by visualising contexts in the next few months. For example, through the new transparency portal which the BMZ has developed without a data lab. It will be published soon, and many can benefit from these possibilities. 

What do you think can we learn from our partners from the Global South concerning digitalisation in Germany?

 An astonishing amount! We can learn at least as much as we bring in. I believe that Germany, through its structured approach, sits on a large field of specifications and regulations and has difficulties to stepp away. Germany has become very rigid and inflexible. We didn’t managed to take on board the changes that digitalisation means and develop them further. We keep failing to address this problem because the plans say: we want to promote digitalisation, and at the same time we also want to further develop our existing targets and goals. I fear that sooner or later we will have to decide what is more important to us and whether we are also prepared to take risks! 

Perhaps we will succeed in showing, through the examples of partner countries, where Germany is blocking its own path. For example, we need to move away from the administration’s idea of releasing data is a process. Instead, the non-release of data should be justified. So, we need a different mentality in the administration, but that change will take a very long time. 

You are stranded on a lonely island. Without which 3 apps you can’ t live?

 I’m afraid it’s Twitter, and a Google AI like Lens would certainly be helpful on a desert island – if there’s a network. I would probably also still use WhatsApp to communicate. Even if that’s not what you should do on a desert island: relax and detox from all the communication stress. 

[digital.global] Launch

Kick-off event for the strategic realignment of BMZ’s digital policy

December 1, 2022

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