Big Data, New Possibilities for International Development

A flood of data is created every day...

By analysing patterns from mobile phone usage, a team of researchers in San Francisco is able to predict the magnitude of a disease outbreak half way around the world. Similarly, an aid agency sees early warning signs of a drought condition in a remote Sub-Saharan region, allowing the agency to get a head start on mobilising its resources and save many more lives. Much attention is paid to the vital services that mobile phone technology has brought to billions of people in the developing world. But now many policy-makers, corporate leaders and development experts are realising the potential applications, like the examples above, for the enormous amounts of data created by and about the individuals who use these services. Sources such as online or mobile financial transactions, social media traffic, and GPS coordinates now generate over 2.5 quintillion bytes of so-called "big data" every day. And the growth of mobile data traffic from subscribers in emerging markets is expected to exceed 100% annually through 2015.

The data emanating from mobile phones holds particular promise, in part because for many low income people it is their only form of interactive technology, but it is also easier to link mobile generated data to individuals. This data can paint a picture about the needs and behaviour of individual users rather than simply the population as a whole. Building user-centric solutions offers compelling possibilities for providing better access to services in health, education, financial services, and agriculture for people living in poverty.

Financial Services

Data gleaned from mobile money services can provide deep insight into spending and saving habits across sectors and regions. Digital payment histories can allow individuals to build credit histories, making them candidates for loans and other credit-based financial services.


Data derived from the use of mobile value-added services can be used to improve public-sector understanding of educational needs and knowledge gaps, allowing more targeted and timely initiatives to disseminate critical information.


Data collected through mobile devices, whether captured by health workers, submitted by individuals, or analysed in the form of data exhaust, can be a crucial tool in understanding population health trends or stopping outbreaks. When collected in the context of individual electronic health records, this data not only improves continuity of care for the individual, but it can be used to create massive datasets with which treatments and outcomes can be compared in an efficient and cost effective manner.


Mobile payments for agricultural products, input purchases and subsidies may help governments better predict food production trends and incentives. This knowledge can be used to ensure the availability of proper crop storage, reduce waste and spoilage, and provide better information about what types of financial services are needed by farmers. Mobile use patterns may also help governments and development organisations identify regions in distress so that targeted assistance can be directed to them. Early detection can help prevent families from leaving their land and further decreasing agricultural production.

Data through the Mobile Financial Services Lens...

Regulatory Proportionality: Finding appropriate uses for mobile-generated data will require regulation similar to that needed for mobile financial services. In both situations, regulation must keep pace with new technology and protect consumers without stifling innovation or deterring uptake. The development of sensible data standards could increase uptake of both mobile financial services and individual data security. Consumer Protection: As with mobile financial services, proper regulation and data ownership processes must be put in place to prevent the theft or misuse of sensitive information.

Market Competitiveness: In the long term, adequate competition is essential to ensure a wider range of affordable services and interoperability. However, private-sector companies should be encouraged to allow access to non-sensitive data that can benefit populations and deepen their own understanding of individual behaviour. Such cooperation may also help telecom operators realise that creating interoperable mobile money systems can benefit them over the long term.

Market Catalysts: For both the data commons and mobile money, government can serve as a catalyst to ensure legitimacy. This will require open and transparent governance, as the idea of government access to an individual‟s financial information could discourage uptake of mobile financial services. End User Empowerment & Access: Individuals must have a moderate degree of financial literacy, affordable access to a mobile device, and a mobile network connection, in addition to control over their own information.

Distribution and Agent Network: Analysing transactional data could determine where there is demand for additional mobile money agents.

Likewise, utilising the data created by mobile phone use can improve our understanding of vulnerable populations, and can quicken governments‟ response to the emergence of new trends. Actors in the public, private, and development sectors are beginning to recognise the mutual benefits of creating and maintaining a "data commons" in which this information benefits society as a whole while protecting individual security and privacy. But a more concerted effort is required to make this vision a reality.

To Be Continue...