Unlocking the Mobile Data Vaults

Mobile network operators (MNOs) get a lot of requests for their data, including from development organizations who want to use it to improve programs and services for underserved communities. The case for using mobile data for research, forecasting, disaster response, and public-service improvement is growing stronger with each innovative project. The GSMA, UN Global Pulse, Flowminder Foundation, WorldPop, and the Data-Pop Alliance are gaining visibility as champions of the beneficial use of mobile data, and they are finding converts among decision-makers in many developing markets.

Despite great interest, experts across sectors have suggested that the use of mobile data for social good remains largely in the pilot phase. Remaining challenges stem from both the demand and supply side as well as from a lack of coordination among stakeholders. Policy makers and humanitarian and development practitioners do not fully understand the potential of mobile network data, and often they do not have the technical skills to integrate insights from big data. Meanwhile, the absence of enabling regulatory frameworks hinders mobile sector firms from further sharing data and insights. MNOs, in particular, are bound by rigorous sets of regulations that are often more stringent than the ones governing companies using their networks. Unless robust privacy policies go away (which they won’t and shouldn’t), the risk of sharing data with third parties will continue to weigh on data for development (D4D) projects.

Innovative initiatives are offering potential solutions, such as Orange’s D4D Challenge, which made enormous sets of anonymized data available to researchers and attracted strong support from development organizations. Mobile Data for Social Good, a recent report produced by UN Global Pulse and the GSMA with support from Vital Wave, discusses barriers to success and provides recommendations for a way forward. The report suggests that a promising path to large-scale D4D acceptance is the execution of a high-profile demonstration project by a broad public-private partnership of governments, MNOs, and development organizations. Such a partnership would create the regulatory environment and back-end systems required to reassure and reward risk-averse MNOs. It would also offer convincing evidence for the value of using mobile data for development. Breaking through the obstacles to large-scale D4D will take a determined push by a diverse group of actors. But the astonishing range of applications and the benefits of using data for development promise that the effort is clearly worthwhile.

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