The Potential for Mobile Data to Impact Social Good

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In June, a collaboration between UN Global Pulse, the United Nations, and the GSMA released The State of Mobile Data for Social Good report which looks at how mobile big data can be an incredible resource in driving social good efforts around the world.

The report was produced with the support of Vodafone Americas Foundation and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), and released at an event at the Vodafone offices in New York.  During the event, a panel of experts representing the mobile data for good ecosystem—MNOs, UN, donors, data scientists— explored what opportunities mobile has opened, the challenges the field is facing, and what actions should be taken in order to improve the outcome of mobile data for global development.

The Potential of Mobile Data

Mobile phones have become ubiquitous around the world. In fact, there are more than five billion mobile subscribers globally. Each mobile device generates an incredible amount of information, such as data usage or call and text records, that mobile providers use mainly for billing services. However, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. There are many possibilities to use this information to benefit communities around the world. Mobile data has the ability to yield unique and distinct insights that cannot be obtained from traditional data sources. Combining the two types of data allows for richer, more precise, and less costly solutions to global impact.

For example, mobile big data can be used to take humanitarian action and inform more effective crisis response. After a disaster or during a disease epidemic, insights from mobile data can be used to assess population vulnerability and displacement, measure the impacts of the disaster, and coordinate response efforts.

Following the 2015 earthquake in Nepal through a partnership between Flowminder and Ncell, humanitarian response organizations were able to use anonymized data from 12 million mobile subscribers in the area to understand were people had moved immediately following the disaster. Traditionally, aid workers might have to expend resources to discover where the victims migrated and arbitrarily search for survivors to bring assistance to. Understanding the population movement allowed response teams to build maps to exactly pinpoint where impacted individuals were located. Location mapping opens up the potential for life-saving humanitarian aid without wasting resources and maximizes its impact.

Current Challenges

Of course, as with any source of information, mobile data can prove immensely useful, but it also has its corresponding challenges. These challenges currently prevent mobile data from being a true catalyst in global development efforts.

First of all, data is currently collected across a fragmented system. There are countless providers around the world all collecting data in different ways, which means there is no one place that has all data. This makes it difficult to analyze a full spectrum of data to understand a specific situation or identify exactly how a problem could be solved.

Additionally, privacy is a concern – as it should be. While data can be made accessible through secure and safe channels that protect subscriber privacy, the privacy of the individuals whosedata is being collected should be a top consideration when exploring ways to leverage this data. Right now, there are limited privacy policies or regulations around how this data could be used specifically in social good contexts, which stunts the use of the data.

How do we move forward?

Pilot and feasibility studies have shown that mobile data can be successfully utilized for social good. Past successes have highlighted the importance of participation from the key stakeholders, such as the mobile network providers, academic institutions, social impact organizations, and even the government. Although these pilot and feasibility studies have not yet been scaled, they can still provide potential roadmaps for future endeavors to use mobile data as a tool for global development.

Ultimately, to move forward and overcome the challenges faced in using mobile data for social good, it’s important to weigh the risk of leveraging the data against the risks of not doing anything at all. Not acting can prove to have negative consequences around the world and limit the ways the people in need can be helped.

Instead, the report calls out several recommendations that should be taken to move forward efforts to leverage mobile data for social good initiatives:

  • Identify and build sustainable business models to understand what types of social development projects are successful and those that are not.
  • Address data privacy and data protection gaps to mitigate risks in using mobile data.
  • Build up capacity in the right places by involving all stakeholders and engaging local experts and coordinating across different sectors and countries.
  • Create global tools for public good so platforms can be scalable across regions and scenarios.

The report also states that not one organization can do it alone, we must have a collaborative future to advance mobile data. A cross-sector collaborative effort is needed to involve and commit all stakeholders and create a roadmap to achieve large-scale success. Now is the time to bring these individual achievements and potential ideas to the forefront and improve on what has already been achieved to truly impact the way mobile data can be used for social good.

If you’re interested in learning more, download the full report.