Shuttleworth Foundation Flash Grant for Furthering Open Knowledge

Love your research data and let others love it, too

I have been rewarded a Shuttleworth Foundation Flash Grant! The grant comes from the Shuttleworth Foundation as a way to help budding initiatives in favour of open knowledge at large. In my case, it is a nudge in support of RS Strategy‘s efforts to further open knowledge in the MENA region through the OpenMENA project.

A lot to unpack here! Let’s discuss each of these separately then.

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The Startup Revolution in the Arab World


It’s a fact, the startup ecosystem is blossoming in the Arab world. How did it happen? Who are the main players? How can the Arab diaspora help?

In partnership with, a French diversity-aiming digital co-working space, and StartupBRICS, a French-written blog on startups in the BRICS countries, are inviting French entrepreneurs and members of the Arab diaspora to discuss this startup revolution.

Several key players will lead the debate:

  • Julien Le Bot, co-founder at Yakwala, a French media focusing on hyperlocal news and data;
  • Rayna Stamboliyska, expert on open data and technology in the Middle East, founder at RS Strategy;
  • Ahmed Chebil, Tunisian entrepreneur (hosting, cloud and data security), via Skype;
  • Aline MayardWamda‘s French Editor;
  • Akram Belkaïd, author of “Être Arabe aujourd’hui”.

The debate will be curated by Hugo Sedouramane, a journalist at l’Opinion and project manager at Club 21ème Siècle. The event is #Simploff 3, and will take place on 2 December 2013, at’s premises in Montreuil.

Big Data, Bad Data: My keynote at the Open World Forum 2013


I was honoured to be giving the closing keynote at the Open World Forum 2013. The event took place in Paris on 4 October 2013. I shared the stage with Rand Hindi of :SNIPS and Romain Lacombe of French Prime Minister’s Commission Etalab.

We spoke about what big data can bring to society. Thus, I focused on critically discussing common misconceptions in both Big Data meaning and analysis.

Most importantly, my take-home message is that numbers do not speak of themselves. Rather, data’s meaning in the eye of the beholder. Therefore, context, interpretation, what counts even, are all a function of who runs the analysis.

MENA Infographic Roundup: Education, Tech, Work Dynamics


I was feeling like wrapping up a few interesting tidbits I stumbled upon earlier. These are all infographics, some are in Arabic. Enjoy 🙂


Wamda publishes a nice and comprehensive infographic (full size) summing up the ways Jordanians use the Internet. For Arabic-impared, here are a few highlights:

  • internet penetration in Jordan is only around 48%;
  • of the 1.5 million internet users in Jordan, 90% of women and 87% of men use social networks;
  • the vast majority of internet users are men between 20 and 30 years old;
  • men spend more time on social networks than women (one hour 37 min vs. 50 min, respectively), but streaming websites — amongst the most popular in Jordan — have equal visit rates;
  • Internet users aged above 40 represent 11% of the total number of all internet users in the country.

Internet Use in Jordan, by Y2D and Ipsos.

I have previously written on Jordan (and spoke on radio about it). The most recent piece is here: Jordan Starts Blocking ‘Unlicensed Websites’ (published in Jadaliyya).


I stumbled upon an interesting infographic by the Worldbank, entitled “What Will It Take to Achieve Education for All?”. The infographic doesn’t focus on the Middle East specifically but wraps up global trends. It was published back in April 2013, preparing for the ‘Learning for All’ Ministerial Meeting. The Worldbank Blog published excerpts from the associated social media campaign that I recommed you have a look at.

  • إنفوجرافيك: ما المطلوب لتحقيق هدف التعليم للجميع؟ (full size)
  • “What Will It Take to Achieve Education for All?” (full size)


I have recently written on more Middle East-targeted education topics: Information Technologies and Education in the Arab World (published in Nature Middle East).

Workplace, the famous online job search platform, has conducted a poll which saw 9,845 respondents covering the UAE, KSA, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia. The results are presented in a comprehensive infographic (full size); highlights:

  • 20% of job seekers blame the educational system for being ill-prepared for the current job market;
  • 54% of professionals are active job seekers who apply regularly (vs. 46% who are passive job seekers, that is they wait for employers to find them);
  • 30% of professionals feel the biggest turn-off in a manager is the lack of vision;
  • top industries perceived to be employing the most talent are Oil and Gas, & IT and Telecom.

Workplace Dynamics in MENA

Information technologies and education in the Arab World


A new UNESCO report looks at how ICT is being used in education across five Arab states.

In spite of a push to incorporate ICT (information and communication technology) in education across the Arab world, several countries still lag behind, according to a new report from UNESCO.

The report is the first to focus on how ICT is being used in the region and focuses on five countries in the Middle East: Egypt, Jordan, Oman, the Occupied Palestinian Territories (data from the West Bank only) and Qatar. It identifies four main indicators of how ICT rates in education: infrastructure, gender, teacher preparedness and policy.

The basic infrastructure indicator looks at student access to technology and access to the Internet. Of the five countries, Egypt is a clear outlier. At the primary school level, an average of 120 pupils share one computer, and at the secondary level, the number reduces to 25 students. The average number in the other four countries is between seven and 19 at the primary school level (Qatar and Palestine, respectively). These numbers drop to five students at the secondary school level.

The disparity between Egypt and the others becomes even more striking when looking at access to computers connected to the internet. Every 441 pupils at the primary school level share one such computer, dropping to 94 at the secondary school level.

Fewer than a third of the computers at schools in Egypt and the Occupied Palestinian Territories are connected to the internet, computers for educational and administrative purposes are both counted. In contrast, about two-thirds of computers in schools in Jordan, Oman and Qatar are online.

“Computers are not necessary as a pre-requisite for good thinking; good teachers are. But young learners need to use computers to be competitive in the global marketplace,” says Marina Apaydin, professor of Strategic Management and Innovation at the American University of Beirut. “Not knowing ITC and language makes kids illiterate in the modern world and this is one of the reasons MENA lags behind say China and India in producing competitive and mobile workforce.”


When surveying teacher preparedness to use ICTs in classrooms, according to nationally-defined qualification standards, the report found that only “a minority of teachers are prepared to teach basic computer skills or computing” across the five states in both primary and secondary schools.

The report found that gender did not factor significantly in access to ICT in education. Interestingly, wherever such differences appear, they seem to favour access to and use of ICT by girls. These findings need, however, to be considered cautiously as the authors point out that the data speaks little about the methods of use of ICT by gender.

All five countries have formally developed policies to integrate ICT in education by establishing “regulatory institutions to ensure that ICT-assisted educational reform takes place.” These policies do not translate, however into practice, the report says. Egypt and the Occupied Palestinian Territories also lag behind the three other countries when it comes to permeation of ICT curricula across all grades of primary and secondary education.

“The problem in Egypt is that a very ambitious modernisation campaign was led to equipping schools with computers and internet while less attention was given to building human capacities to use them, resulting in a lack of vision for the sustainability of such initiatives,” says Karim Kasim, telecentres regional coordinator for the Egypt ICT Trust Fund —, which was jointly established by the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

You can download the full report from UNESCO’s website

[First published on Nature Middle East. More MENA content.]

Crunching raw stuff: on the road to #dataviz, part 1


One day, my overcrowded inbox delivered a particular message: an invitation to enroll in a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) on information graphics and data visualization. This made me pause a bit, for a few reasons. First one is curiosity, of course: I’m obsessively curious, my memory is like a sponge, so anytime I bump into something new, my neurons start jiggling. This happened this time as well: I had never taken a MOOC before, and anyway #dataviz is something I’m quite interested in.

Second is this, precisely: I’m a hardcore scientist, and infographics are generally dismissed as “fancy, glossy and stupid” by a majority of my peers who hail the idea of presenting raw, dry facts which supposedly speak for themselves. Indeed, many infographics I have seen when browsing the web are not far from this pejorative definition as they are just a nicely put brag of a gifted designer but bring no insight whatsoever in the information they are supposed to present you.

Third is that I somehow got into data storytelling, or making big boring numbers relevant for the layman. I know many people — including myself! — who are not keen at all digging into the World Bank Database and reading about GDP or GNI or whatever the eggheads out there have decided to call it. This repulsion is, however, much easier to overcome when you are scientist for the mere reason that a major part of your daylight job is just this: crunching raw boring stuff to make sense of it.

How was I supposed to reconcile my somewhat innate obsession of analysis, of uncovering mechanisms and ‘reverse engineering’ even art pieces — which supposes a great sense of detail and possibly a quite rigid mindset, unwilling to give up on details — with depicting and abstracting this incredibly broad range of information into an infographic? I gave it a try or two on my own. I was not happy, either because I feared it was too heavy on facts (the mechanistic freak was too present) or because in an attempt to make it understandable, it was sloppy (the perfectionist came forward).

Then the course kicked off. And my talespinner-scientist schizophrenia got a breathing space 🙂 This sums it pretty well: “The life of a visual communicator should be one of systematic and exciting intellectual chaos.” This just sounded right to me and for me. The quote is courtesy of Alberto Cairo, our instructor, who does an amazing job introducing things in a progressive and logical fashion. I recommend you follow him on Twitter and/or read his blog as his prolific remarks are really worht the read (and funny).

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Egypt: In Knowledge We Trust


[This op-ed was first published on]

Loads of bits and gallons of ink have been spilled over the Arab Spring, the advent of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Arab Winter, etc. Yet not much attention has been paid to education although it all boils down to education, as the general idea goes.

Education is igniting a brain to find and make its own knowledge. Image adapted by the author  (CC-by 2.0)

Education is igniting a brain to find and make its own knowledge. Image adapted by the author (CC-by 2.0)

Of course, you can assume I am just a regular westerner in her late twenties with a secure well-paid job just bashing around behind a mask of self-attributed cheeky maturity. You do have the right to be wrong all along the line. So, before someone starts asking what this rant has to do with education and Arab revolutions, let me put it plainly: a revolution is not only about politics, but also about how we produce our rulers.

I think we should avoid confiding our future to a school of mentally disturbed teachers. In other words, we need to rebuild education and focus the whole process on acquiring the ability to learn and unlearn. People are knowledgeable at any level of their lives, so teaching them what to think rather than how to think is a slap in the face.

Implementation of such an idea is, however, extremely complex and requires more than a little political goodwill. As a recent Guide to Egypt’s Challenges has starkly stated, illiteracy and drop-outs rates are critical — but even more alarming is the quality of education which is unadapted to employment and business markets. In Egypt, 15% of the population falls in the 15-24 age group [pdf] and makes up 30% of the working-age population. Yet this group also suffers the highest unemployment rate: yes, rebuilding education is vital. A committee of experts was established at the dawn of the revolution with the task of defining a fresh curriculum. With all due respect, how do you intend to rejuvenate old-fashioned programs by putting dusty minds to work? This is not a rhetorical question, but let’s proceed.

This committee suggested various changes such as encouraging use of computers in schools and investing more in science and research. A thoughtful article published in 2004 discussed Egypt’s “academic entrepreneurs” and the exciting array of initiatives to promote biotech research in the region. Back then, the hype was already strong for the Nile University, the very first non-profit private research university in the country and the region, “the kind of eye-catching initiative that Egypt’s government hopes will help it close the gap on countries with a more advanced R&D infrastructure”.

Nile University opened its doors in 2006. And the hype was not in vain: its rich applied research curriculum attracted many highly qualified students and professors and soon collaborations with foreign institutions blossomed. In June 2011, the first post-revolution budget was approved, and science was allocated a stunning 0.4% of GDP … Oh well, I am just badmouthing again: 0.4% of GDP is what fabulous scientific achievers like the Slovak Republic and Argentina spend, while Saudi Arabia invests a mere 0.1%. Irony aside, this was the double the funding in 2010, and the plan was to reach 2% of the GDP in 2015, which is ambitious but positive.

I support Nile University. Image by oskay on Flickr (CC-by 2.0)

I support Nile University. Image by oskay on Flickr (CC-by 2.0)

Interestingly enough, bolstering Egypt’s science and research includes the dismantlement of Nile University, Egypt’s research jewel. After the revolution, many of the Mubarak-era decisions were overruled, and in 2011 the government reassigned Nile University’s lands and buildings to the Zewail City of Science and Technology, a veritable monster of pristine glass and steel.

Since then, it’s been dog eat dog. Nile University researchers were forced to quit their labs and rent other facilities, if available, elsewhere to work for a few hours. Although Zewail claims a deal to merge the two is in the making, there is no guarantee that Nile University will remain independent as it wants to. A lawsuit has been filed, negotiations engaged, and even a government offer was made to compensate Nile University for all its outlay in equipping the labs. But what do you want to do with this money with no place to invest it in?

Students elsewhere resume class, but those enrolled in Nile University are still banned from their alma mater by Zewail. On August 28, around 60 students and their professors staged a sit-in to protest the ban on using any of the buildings on campus. Meanwhile, a committee – yes, this is one of Egypt’s fortes – has been formed to address the crisis brewing between a megalomaniac science entity with no staff, no departments, and no curricula on the one hand and a bunch of insolent disobedient youngsters on the other, impertinent enough to want to acquire knowledge in the right conditions.

Images: “Brain Injection” original and the heart sourced here (both CC-by 2.0)