The Potential of Data for Development

The rise in the use of digital technologies – particularly mobile phones – has led to an exponential rise in digital data. A lot of new data is being generated by people in communities that have previously not been represented, thanks to cheaper, more accessible phones and service plans.

Data for development
The Benefits of Leveraging Digital Data

Historically, the traditional source of data to support development efforts has come from surveys and official statistics. Without discounting their importance, these sources tend to come with high costs and long timeframes to collect, which ultimately results in outdated indicators. At the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) we believe that new digital data sources, such as mobile call detail records (CDRs) and satellite imagery, can complement traditional development indicators to turn big data into actionable insights for development programs to be used in decision-making and project delivery. These new digital data sources can also reduce time, money and knowledge gaps.

From academic studies, to telecommunications (telco) driven pioneering experiments and ad hoc responses to crises – the immense potential of using mobile data for development has been demonstrated. While the potential of using data for development is known, limited traction has been achieved across the development sector due to various issues such as unclear costs/benefits, regulation issues, difficulty in scaling/sustaining/replicating, capacity issues and privacy risks. What’s needed is better scalability and sustainability, and a clearer alignment with the market reality of data holders and key ecosystem participants.

DIAL is taking a multi-pronged investment approach partnering with data holders, leveraging existing projects, and working with policy and regulatory actors to develop a shared value proposition that addresses common barriers across actors. DIAL’s Data for Development (D4D) team is exploring three to five investments this year that illustrate how network data can help address specific development challenges. These holistic but targeted use cases will allow DIAL to develop the insights needed to scale and build out a broader and more efficient D4D ecosystem. This includes, but is not limited to, the broader integration of data (within and beyond telco data) and the acceleration of the development of an ecosystem of applications.

One example DIAL is tackling is how to better predict food crises through the use of big data. Research suggests that there is a strong correlation between mobile phone top-ups and calorie consumption. If a consumer is recharging their SIM cards less frequently, they are also consuming less calories. By combining this mobile data with satellite remote sensing of food security variables (such as crop condition, growth and yield), we can better forecast potential food crises.

Another example that our partner Data2x examined in their report Big Data and the Well-Being of Women and Girls (April 2017) is the use of satellite imagery to improve the spatial resolution of existing data on women and girls obtained from Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS). They found that certain social and health indicators such as child stunting, literacy and access to modern contraception are correlated with geospatial phenomena. By testing various models in five different counties they demonstrated how limited and unevenly distributed survey data points across a country can be transformed into a continuous landscape of information.

DIAL will continue to explore these use cases and more to identify the best learnings to improve the D4D ecosystem. We are uniquely positioned to achieve this because of our constant focus on the roadblocks to scale, our neutrality towards location and sector and our team of experts that understand both public and private sector motivations.

As we explore how to best use data for development, we will be sharing our learnings and best practices on leveraging the power of data for development. If you’re interested in partnering with us to explore this work, contact me.

Danielle Dhillon joined the Digital Impact Alliance in March 2017 as Senior Program Analyst, Data for Development. In this role, she works to demonstrate the value of a viable Data for Development (D4D) ecosystem for driving effective learning and decision-making across development programs, the public sector and the private sector.