The Effect and Impact of COVID-19 on Future Infrastructure with Aniedi Udo-Obong

‘It’s a school of thought and I think it’s almost a fact. Internet, data, connectivity is no longer a luxury, it is now a necessity and not just a necessity, it’s almost a utility’

With over 12 years practical experience working with start-ups in technology, media, finance, logistics, location-based services and currently program manager, developer ecosystem for Google Sub-Saharan Africa, Aniedi Udo-Obong is a talented go-getter and he is always adding value. 

 

Q: How do you think COVID-19 will change the way we do things in technology and in business?

First of all, in Nigeria, I think the concept of remote work has been frowned upon. People have not looked at it, if you live in Lagos, it may cost you three hours of commute to get to and fro. In the long run, people are probably not being their best selves at work. During this period, companies that do not necessarily encourage remote work have been forced to actually rethink their business processes to keep the business up and running. If you are running essential services like maybe a bank, or a financial house or even med-tech or even in education, you know… I am sure schools will be sending homework to their pupils or students, telling them to log on online and take some classes and do some assignments.

So, everyone is sort of beginning to embrace the challenge, and in that challenge see an opportunity to deliver value for their business with their customers, students and workers. So, the collaboration and coordination don’t mean because I’m situated in Lagos I can only support the Google developer groups in Lagos, whether it’s the student clubs in UNILAG or Yabatech or whether it’s the Google developer groups that we have in Ajah, in Ojoh-Festac or in Ikorodu and in Lagos proper, somehow, you have to figure out a way of coordinating all that work and the tools we have today. I mean, the internet is still expensive and I will come to that in the future. But the tools we have today, the mobile phone, internet connectivity, actually can make people do a lot of work.

So, I think post-COVID-19 or even during this COVID-19 crisis, a lot of companies have jumped from traditional pen and paper, ‘everybody must come to the office at 08:00 AM and maybe do a morning devotion’, they have had to sort of figuring out how to continue keeping account, keeping the conversation within managers, how to continue collaborating as a team as everyone is literally forced to work from home. Will this cause a cultural change in the way these companies operate, will they become a bit more considerate? I would say like some of the companies that allow us to work from home or give us flexible hours, I don’t know & I hope so, but, if you have been in Lagos rush hour, it really is very demoralizing that it takes two hours to get to work and people have to just sit in traffic almost doing nothing or doing very little. So, I hope that COVID-19 has forced people to see that it is possible to be productive without being part of rush hour and I hope that this will help a lot of other companies and individuals see the benefits of the technology tools that are available. Of course, there are risks but I hope people see the benefit. 

 

First of all, the aspect of digitizing work, of digital transformation; it’s not every business that can go end-to-end.

If you are a software developer, it could be end-to-end from downloading your tools, to connecting to your laptop, to uploading your code, pushing it, validating it, testing it and eventually getting even paid. You can do all that completely. But, some other aspects, I would say in the workplace value chain, we can think of digitizing some steps. Take the example of ride-hailing or Uber or Taxify, one of the challenges taxi drivers had was that half the time, drivers are driving empty like there’s no passenger, no paying passenger in the vehicle. So the driver is burning fuel & actually being a nuisance on the road. They are just part of traffic.

The second thing is that, for those who are based in a particular location or if someone was going from the airport to VGC-Ajah, Then, they will drive to VGC-Ajah, drop off the passenger and literally have to drive empty all the way to the airport to queue up for their next turn. So, what has happened with things like digitisation, ride-hailing technology, you know, you don’t have to drive on the road to get a passenger. You can wait in a particular location under a tree or even at your home-base car park and then, the next request will come to you, you pick it up and then you go and drop off your passenger at VGC. If you do drop off your passenger at VGC, you don’t have to drive back all the way empty. Chances are before the ride ends, you start seeing another set of requests coming. The system can even allocate your requests, the system can even understand that you would love to go back towards Ikeja and not further down to Sangotedo and Awoyaya right? and the driver can actually set these things on the phone & on the app. So, this is the direction in which I want to head, give me a job sending me in that direction.

So, you see that you are not doing an end-to-end digital transformation of the entire job because some or part of the job might actually require driving a vehicle with either goods or people and them going to deliver in another location. What I’m trying to explain to you is to see that the driver who can understand Uber or who gets Uber or who embraces Uber has a higher likelihood of getting more consistent jobs than someone who is doing it the old-fashioned way and not using technology in some aspects of the job. So, yes people are going to see the possibilities and need to take on opportunities but beyond COVID-19 or beyond when the pandemic is gone, the traditional way of looking for an artisan or a blue-collar worker to come and do some work in the house has changed and for some people, they are cashing out on that and for some others, this period is the one that has opened up their eyes to the opportunity both for the person requesting the service and for the person fulfilling the service.

 

The one part and I said I was going to talk about this when I made reference to it earlier on was the fact that in my opinion.

It’s a school of thought and I think it’s almost a fact, internet, data, connectivity is no longer a luxury, it is now a necessity and not just a necessity, it’s almost a utility. So, the way you think of electricity, the way you think of water, we now need to realize and prioritise especially at the government or public sector level, everybody needs to have it. Can they use it maximally? The way a software developer will use it will be different from the way a pupil or a market woman or a trader will use it but we need to make this thing available as much as possible, try and get everyone a decent connection.

I’m not going to go into the speeds and the Gs and that controversy, but like there should be available and affordable internet, possibly even free in some locations, in specific hotspots, every home, on every phone, on every device so that people who need the internet or who need to do entertainment, information, education can access it. I am of the school of thought and its something I would love to push a lot that COVID-19 should be that wake-up call to government, to everyone, to service providers, to even the general public in when they are demanding for whatever they are asking for from their representatives for the government that internet is no longer a luxury and has even gone beyond necessity, it is actually now a utility like water, electricity or sunlight. 

 

The second aspect and I think it has to do with the topic of today, is things around identity.

So, right now people are talking about contact tracing, and how do you verify who came, who did they meet etc. We have an identity crisis in Nigeria, I think the closest things to a decent identity in Nigeria are probably things like BVN and probably PVC. So, BVN I think is the Central Bank of Nigeria and then PVC is INEC, the electoral commission. It’s difficult to identify people and if you can’t identify people, how do you know how to reach them? how do you know where they are? Well, you have to consider the privacy aspect of that but even, how do you even deliver value to them?

I was a bit hurt to see that conditional cash transfer in this COVID-19 period was being done, people are actually giving cash, so like, the people you are trying to save and stay at home and give them some succour because they are losing their income during COVID-19, you actually have them leave their homes and come to a central point to give them cash, money in hand, that could even be viral-infected whereas if people had their BVNs and their account numbers, or some sort of social security number or national identity number. It probably would just require one script from the CBN to say okay everybody in this demography, in this economic bracket, give them five thousand naira and everyone will just get an alert on their phone and say you’ve been credited five thousand naira by the CBN or by the federal government conditional transfer.

So, identity is something that we are going to have to collectively, the public sector and private sector agree that is a problem that we can solve. The same way, we are clamouring to solve the problems around infrastructure for the internet and even the underlying infrastructure for the internet which includes things like power. Base stations have to be powered, cell towers, right now you have all those infrastructures running on generators and stuff. So yeah, as we look at things like electricity, trying to solve the electricity problem, trying to solve the broadband or the connectivity problem, we are going to have to also look at ways we can solve the identity problem in Nigeria. 

 

Q: I stumbled on your tweet saying “The country’s identity system will be a lot better with cloud computing power” Do you want to share light on that?       

So, cloud computing power and we are actually careful about this reference because one thing about identity is, this is like sovereign data, this data belongs to the country and sometimes when you talk about cloud. You think of the biggest cloud providers like Microsoft, Amazon, Google. These are not local companies and they do not have data centres locally. So we have to be compliant with the National Data Protection Regulation (NDPR) and a lot of the initiatives being pushed by the government where data is hosted and how it is utilised but the issue is when you look at the data and the multiple sources of data we have in the country; one of the biggest challenges apart from maybe the political will and some other challenges is that to deduplicate that data or to merge that data will take a lot of time and computing power.

If you have seventy million records in INEC and forty million records in BVN and thirty million records in immigrations and twelve million records in some other database system and you want to sort of like deduplicate all the fingerprints and know which ones are matching, and which ones are correcting and sort of getting one unique database. That’s going to be a lot of computing power. I’m not sure it’s something you can just plug the flash drive that contains INEC data, plug the flash drive that contains BVN and say okay run a batch job to do the comparison on one server. Usually, those data may be terabytes of data hosted somewhere. These are images, these are fingerprints, whatever the fingerprint format is and you are going to do comparisons. There is a lot of work that goes into identification and deduplication.

So, yes, first of all, it’s the willingness to say: Can we bring the seventy million records from here and the thirty million records from here and ten million records from here and even the whole sixty million records from MTN, and sim card guys and everybody and sort of dump all the data somewhere and try and figure out, what are the unique values and who has an identity in all four places or in just two places? and that takes a lot of computing power. I think the complete power to do that will probably be resident in the cloud because the cloud is literally almost infinite, you can speed up servers, you can do virtualisation.

At Google, we have something we call TPUs which are an advanced form of CPUs that are optimised for machine learning and for big data analysis. So, to do that kind of operation, you are going to need computing power and the way you will get or use computing power today is not the same way it was given ten years ago where you will go and order six hundred servers from Dell or HP and come and set-up a data centre. You can actually do that if you want to run the contract of the operation that way, but with the right cloud computing secure and private infrastructure, you can actually rent computing on demand and literally get limitless compute storage and memory power to run the script of the operations of the transactions that can deduplicate the data and give you a unique database and then, you can now host that unique database on-premise or in the local data center.

 

Q: What are your three non-negotiables?

So, that’s a very interesting one. The first thing is, I think family is everything and that drives how you work, what your ambitions are, what you aspire to. So, if you really put family first, then that will inspire, motivate, re-energise you every single time. Second thing is, I would say excellence and excellence embodies a lot of things, it embodies hard work, it embodies putting in your best, giving your best at every time. Try to offer or deliver the best you, every time you are called upon for work or to deliver service or to lead a team or to do something right? My dad used to say that “Even if you’re a street sweeper, sweep the street so well” and I think it was a Martin Luther quote that states when you die, on your tombstone, they will say ‘here lies a street sweeper who did his job very well’. So, that sort of excellence or dedication is really, really, very important and just like putting in your best and I say this because every single time I have put in my best at something, the results have been phenomenal.

And then finally for me, I think the last word is all about finishing or completing things. Just the way, the grace, the power to finish. Start what you can finish and finish what you start. Like, there are so many books that you probably have read the first two pages, the first chapter and dropped textbooks, courses you have done online you did the first two videos. If you take a step back and look at the things you’ve finished in your life, whether it was school, whether it was a course, whether it was a training. The ones that you finished and it’s not that someone said you finished, you know you finished it, you did it end-to-end, you read the book, you studied it, you learnt the skill, you took the course, you attended the class, you put in your all and you finished it till the end and maybe got a certificate or an accomplishment or a recognition; those are some of the things that propel you really far in life and the things you can refer to whether in an interview or being given a reference or someone is even referring you to someone saying this is the person that did this or that made this or that was responsible for this. So, in the long run, yes it is family, excellence and the grace to finish. ‘Start what you can finish and finish what you have started’ 

 

One thing that I have switched to this year, it’s a tough one. I’m going to be very careful about giving this advice but every time I remind myself, I stick to it and that consistency beats intensity. So, its consistency over intensity. Every single day, make one progress. Intensity is great but consistency is greater. 

Listen to the full episode here

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