Rebecca Furst-Nichols, Syed Raza, Bapu Vaitla
New mobile trends reveal how the spread of digital technology is impacting the world: As of 2017, five billion people — two-thirds of the global population — now use mobile phones to connect to life-enhancing opportunities and services, according to GSMA. Greater access to mobile technology means that more data is being generated; use of this data can improve lives in emerging markets by providing information about citizen well-being, allowing governments and other program implementers to improve services for those in need.
Two alliances, DIAL and Data2X, both housed at the United Nations Foundation, are leveraging the power of mobile technology and data to improve development outcomes and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
To harness the promise of big data for global development, DIAL’s Data for Development (D4D) team is making a series of investments that illustrate how telco data can help address specific development challenges at increased scale. By taking a multi-pronged investment approach and working with market and policy actors, DIAL ultimately seeks to develop a shared value proposition that addresses market failures. For example, a collaboration between DIAL D4D, Dalberg Data Insights (DDI), FAO Uganda, and a leading mobile network operator (MNO) is developing an interactive dashboard to predict food availability and detect early signs of food insecurity in Uganda, in near real-time. In Malawi, DIAL is partnering with the Ministry of Health, two leading MNOs, and Cooper/Smith, a technical assistance and healthcare analytics provider, to integrate digital datasets with routine health management information systems for advanced insights on facilities planning. DIAL has many other in-flight prototype projects with partners globally that will help create market and governance models that will bring the D4D ecosystem to scale.
For women and girls, digital data offers particularly exciting promise. Digital data generated through mobile technology can fill the gender data gaps often found in official statistics. Examining usage behavior such as frequency, duration and location of calls, recharge value, physical mobility, and the size and structure of calling networks can provide signals about individuals’ well-being and vulnerability, as well as how they respond to changes in their environments.
By partnering with large data-producing institutions, national statistical offices, and academic researchers, Data2X is developing solutions to close the gender data gap, while advocating for the collection and use of gender data to inform policy. One of Data2X’s core areas of work focuses on using big data for gender analysis. Our report, Big Data and the Well-Being of Women and Girls, synthesized findings from four pilot studies that explored proven or promising sources of digital data to fill gaps in our understanding of women and girls’ lives, and we are currently supporting 11 additional projects that are pushing this work further.
Digital data has the potential to close the global gender data gap and transform the science-to-policy pipeline, and provide decision-makers with highly granular, real-time information. To realize this potential, technology user groups, data companies, governments, nonprofit advocates, academia, and multilateral regulatory institutions must work together to develop protocols that allow data access for public policymaking while protecting individual privacy. In addition, we must work to build bridges between official statistics and big data sources so that both types of data can be used to drive policymaking and progress for all.