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INTERVIEW: NIN, BVN databases can solve Nigeria’s security challenges, says John Atughara

INTERVIEW: NIN, BVN databases can solve Nigeria’s security challenges, says John Atughara
February 24
09:59 2024

John Atughara, a UK-trained data scientist and AI enthusiast, believes innovative data and AI applications can offer strategic pathways towards curbing rising insecurity in Nigeria

In this interview with TheCable’s VICTOR EJECHI, Atughara takes us into the possibility of using data science and Al to fight insecurity.


TheCable: Could you please provide a concise explanation of data science and artificial intelligence using a language understandable to someone without a technical background?

Atughara: AI aims to mimic how humans think, making it possible for machines to solve problems, forecast future events, and, to some degree, even understand human emotions.”

Atughara: Data science, in simple terms, is all about analysing data to find patterns, insights, or answers that can help solve problems or identify growth opportunities, regardless of the industry. It involves collecting both structured (organised) and unstructured (disorganised) data from various sources, then analysing it to make informed decisions and tackle complex issues within a specific organisation or field where employed.

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Artificial Intelligence (AI), on the other hand, refers to creating computer systems that can perform tasks typically requiring human intelligence. This includes things like understanding natural language, recognising patterns in data, making decisions, and learning from experience. AI aims to mimic how humans think, making it possible for machines to solve problems, forecast future events, and, to some degree, even understand human emotions.

TheCable: As a data analyst/scientist with British Aerospace Systems, what influenced your decision to pursue a career in the field?

Atughba: Going into data science was a decision that I took with pride and satisfaction.

Atughara: After completing my first degree in biochemistry at the University of Benin, I began my career in the banking industry, specifically at Zenith Bank in Nigeria. While working in the bank, I found myself regularly dealing with data as part of my daily responsibilities. The more I worked with data, the more fascinated I became by the valuable insights that could be extracted through data analysis.

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This fascination drove me to embark on a journey of self-study and continuous learning. During my free time, I would actively engage in self-directed learning, participating in boot camps, enrolling in online courses, and watching tutorial videos online to enhance my data analysis skills. Eventually, I delved into programming, which marked the beginning of my journey into the field of data science, with a focus on Python programming.

The initial stages of this self-guided learning journey were challenging, as I had to teach myself and navigate the complexities of data science independently. However, as I gained proficiency, my passion for the field only grew stronger. After several years of working in the banking sector, I reached a point where I desired more for my career. With a burning curiosity about the boundless possibilities of working with data, I made the life-changing decision to pursue a master’s degree in the UK. I enrolled in the artificial intelligence and data sciences programme at the University of Hull, a decision that I look back on with pride and satisfaction.

Throughout my career and academic journey, my interest in data science has been shaped by the incredible potential it offers. The ability to construct machine learning models that can predict future outcomes, such as forecasting the expected viewership of TheCable’s news posts by analysing historical data and identifying patterns, or predicting customer subscription behaviours within organisations like banks, has continually fuelled my passion for the field. These real-world applications and the opportunity to leverage data for informed decision-making have driven my unwavering commitment to data science.

TheCable: In the context of Nigeria’s development priorities, which specific challenge do you believe could be significantly impacted by utilising AI and data science? 

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Atughara: One major challenge that I can say, which is currently a nightmare for everyone in Nigeria or anyone who has families in Nigeria, is the challenge of insecurity in the country, particularly the alarming rate of kidnapping. Nigeria’s escalating insecurity crisis has reached a level of national emergency. The audacity of these crimes is a profound challenge to our national security and casts significant doubt on the efficacy of our existing strategies to combat them.

The situation calls for an urgent and comprehensive exploration of using AI to effectively and ethically address this escalating crisis. The potential role of artificial intelligence (AI) in combating such threats is not just a matter of technological advancement but a critical necessity. AI can play a pivotal role in helping us safeguard our nation and protect our citizens from these threats.

Well, when we talk about addressing the challenge of insecurity in our country, I believe there is a significant opportunity that the government should seize. In a recent analysis done by TheCable Index, with data reference from the National Security Tracker (NST) and the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACED) for the year 2023 alone, we have 3,841 fatalities and 4,243 abductions attributed to non-state actors. This highlights the critical nature of this issue.

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This troubling stat, revealing an average of 11 murders and 12 abductions per day, clearly signals an immediate need for innovative solutions. In this scenario, the utilisation of artificial intelligence and data science presents a promising solution, and this can only be achieved through the effective employment of the data available to us.

You see, in today’s world, data is often referred to as the new oil, and Nigeria is sitting on a goldmine of citizen data at its disposal. This wealth of information stems from the policy mandating the linking of national identification numbers (NIN) with SIM cards, and this initiative by the Nigerian government has birthed a comprehensive database that, when integrated with voter card registration and bank verification numbers (BVN), forms a potentially valuable asset for AI analysis.

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To illustrate the potential of leveraging AI to combat crimes, let’s refer to a story from NBC News in 2019. A woman in Colorado had $400 stolen from her purse during a date at a bowling alley in 2017. Initially, the police could not solve the crime due to limited information about the suspect. However, in 2018, a breakthrough came when an investigator, upon running into a colleague testing the department’s new facial recognition software, decided to plug in a photo of the suspect. This action immediately identified the suspect, showcasing how AI can play a pivotal role in solving crimes that would otherwise remain unsolved.

While Nigeria possesses a wealth of data that could be harnessed by AI to combat crime, the question remains: Is the government fully utilising this potential? Kidnapping, a major national concern, seems like an area where this data pool could be particularly useful; but it is crucial to remember that responsible and ethical use of data is paramount. Any AI-powered solution must comply with data protection laws and prioritise the privacy and rights of individuals.

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TheCable: You mentioned some data points we have in Nigeria, like NIN and BVN. How exactly do you think they can be used to fight insecurity while respecting data privacy?

Citizens at an NIMC centre to register for their NIN

Atughara: Firstly, we must safeguard individual privacy and obtain proper consent when using this information. In doing so, we can strike a balance between enhancing our security measures and respecting the rights and privacy of our citizens. Integrating AI-driven real-time surveillance into traffic management systems represents another step forward.

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Employing advanced AI algorithms to autonomously identify and analyse vehicle license plates and facial features in real-time can allow law enforcement to immediately cross-reference captured data with existing databases, potentially leading to more efficient crime prevention.

Again, deploying such surveillance technology requires strict adherence to legal frameworks and ethical guidelines. Transparency in data collection and strong measures to prevent unauthorised use or abuse of the data must be put in place. By carefully balancing these factors, AI-enabled surveillance in traffic systems can enhance public safety and security while upholding ethical standards.

In implementing all these, ensuring comprehensive and up-to-date data collection across the country is also crucial. Regular updates of vital records like BVN or NIN should be mandatory, potentially on an annual basis, to maintain the relevance and accuracy of these databases. This approach should extend to residential data, where landlords and homeowners must report the details of occupants, be they family or tenants, to the government, like how vehicle owners are mandated to register their vehicles. These measures can establish reference points for efficiently tracking and identifying individuals within the population.

Imagine the interconnectivity of these data sources and the kind of powerful AI-driven security framework that can be built on them. Beyond using AI for facial recognition, we can also use the gathered data from historical kidnapping cases and other insecurity events analysed through machine learning to uncover crime patterns. The insights from these frameworks will not only help in understanding crime trends but also in guiding the strategic deployment of real-time CCTV and image-capturing devices in areas identified as high-risk for criminal activities.

When kidnappers use vehicles with traceable license plates or communicate with victims using SIM cards that are linked to their NIN, it becomes a game-changer for law enforcement. If the systems we are talking about are in place, the police can quickly track down these criminals. They do this by diving into the government’s database, which is inclusive of information from NIN, phone numbers, vehicle plate numbers, or data captured by AI systems integrated with CCTV surveillance, and making a swift connection between the information from these data houses.

This network can swiftly piece together different data points, leading to the timely apprehension of criminals. It’s like connecting the dots in real time, making it much harder for kidnappers to hide or use their usual tricks without getting caught.

TheCable: As an expert in data and Al, what advice will you give to the present administration in fighting insecurity?

Ondo Amotekun intercepts suspected bandits

Atughara: My advice for the government extends beyond the immediate concern of enhancing security measures. Investing in artificial intelligence (AI) is crucial for the technological and security growth of Nigeria. This investment should encompass both financial resources and the development of human capital, fostering an environment that promotes innovation and nurtures talent.

Investing in AI shouldn’t be seen as merely a security fix but as a springboard for national progress. By embracing AI, Nigeria can leapfrog into the technological future, driving growth across diverse sectors. Partnering with tech giants and universities offers a strategic pathway to build AI prowess. These collaborations, focused on knowledge and technology exchange, should ensure Nigeria’s AI journey aligns with global data protection and privacy standards.

To stay ahead in the global race, the government must accelerate AI adoption and expertise. This can be achieved through targeted policies like AI education scholarships, research centres co-founded with universities, and AI specialisation tracks integrated into existing STEM programmes.

TheCable: Talking about training the next generation, what advice do you have for enthusiasts and individuals who aspire to pursue a career in your field?

Atughara: To embark on a journey in the field of data sciences and analytics, you must first believe in yourself. Many people doubt their abilities in this domain, dismissing tech-related pursuits as unsuitable for them, and they don’t bother to give it a try. They fail to recognise that the world is changing, and adapting to these changes is crucial.

While not everyone may pursue a career in tech or data sciences, understanding data remains relevant regardless of your chosen path. We interact with data daily, whether through business activities or personal actions like posting on social media, sending text messages and emails, or reviewing our call logs.

When tutoring individuals entering the world of data sciences, particularly those starting with programming tools like Python, I often emphasise that coding isn’t inherently difficult. The key is to grasp the thought process and approach before bothering about translating the thoughts into code.

If you aspire to join this field, begin by believing in yourself, maintaining consistency, and nurturing your passion. Dedication to learning is equally vital; grasping a single line of code or a methodology can sometimes be a slow and patient process. You will also need to consider the dedication it takes to sit for hours, perhaps watching a three-hour tutorial on YouTube or Udemy, just to grasp a basic data science concept, an analytical technique, or a few lines of code. This investment of time can be daunting, and without sufficient dedication, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and consider giving up.

TheCable: Will you say there is sufficient awareness and education about AI and data sciences in Nigeria?

Atughara: Nigeria is facing challenges in providing comprehensive and up-to-date training in data sciences and analytics.| Image: Bing Image Creator/ZDNET

Atughara: I won’t lie to you; the current state of awareness regarding AI and data sciences education in Nigeria is not sufficient. Despite the country’s potential to lead in these fields, the general knowledge and understanding of these critical areas remain limited among the broader population. This gap in awareness hinders the development of a robust ecosystem capable of promoting innovation, driving technological progress, and tackling a wide range of socio-economic issues through the utilisation of AI and data science.

TheCable: What significant obstacle have you observed that hinders the broader awareness of data sciences and analytics in Nigeria as compared to Western countries?

Atughara: One major challenge is the limited access to quality training and resources in the field. In Western countries, there is often a more robust educational infrastructure and a greater number of industry partnerships that support the development of talent in data sciences and analytics. Additionally, Western countries tend to integrate modern data science and analytics methodologies into their educational systems, nurturing talent from a young age.

In contrast, Nigeria faces challenges in providing comprehensive and up-to-date training in data sciences and analytics. The lack of depth in tech-focused curricula and the scarcity of industry partnerships limit the opportunities for individuals to acquire the necessary skills and knowledge. This education gap prevents the broader population from fully understanding the potential of data sciences and analytics in addressing various challenges and opportunities.

TheCable: What are your plans in data sciences?

Atughara: My plans in data sciences involve continuing to contribute to innovative AI solutions, particularly in sectors that directly impact the well-being of society. I also aim to continue to expand my role as a mentor and educator, with a particular focus on guiding young individuals and teenagers who need someone to introduce and guide them into the field of data sciences. It is crucial to engage with these young minds early, reshape their thought processes, and nurture their innovative potential.

I hold a strong belief in the potential of Nigeria and Africa as a whole. Our continent possesses the determination required to excel in these fields. It is time to reshape Nigeria and cultivate the next generation of data science professionals. Furthermore, I will also continue to advocate for the inclusion of tech-focused curricula in our primary and secondary schools.

Finally, I would like to leave you with this perspective: “Introducing early education in data sciences and AI to our children is not merely an educational progression but a forward-looking investment in the future of our nation.”

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