Grant Tudor

The Age of Big Data

Where should we build the next road? Can we predict where disease will spread to next? (Scientists are using Google Earth to track the spread of typhoid in Nepal). How much will a dollar buy in this country versus that? Urban planning, epidemiology and macroeconomics all, respectively, tackle these issues in their own, disparate ways. But according to Nathan Eagle, featured speaker at Columbia Social Enterprise Conference earlier this month, we’ve entered a new era where that might not always be the case – all thanks to mobile phone data.

Let’s take macroeconomics. Each year, the World Bank sends an army of researchers into the field across the globe to ’price collect’ – figuring out how many Argentine pesos a basket of goods costs compared to that same basket’s cost in Kenyan shillings (i.e. a purchasing power parity study). The data collected is critical to economic policymaking, not just for the Bank, but also for economists and policymakers the world over.

Such a massive data-gathering exercise expectedly comes with a hefty price tag – in this case, around $77 million. So Eagle, co-founder and CEO of Jana (featured previously on NextBillion), approached the Bank with a faster, cheaper and more precise alternative: use mobile phones to gather the data instead. Why not just ask the city-dwelling Argentine and the rural Kenyan farmer what they’re paying for comparable products? After all, they both, now, have mobile phones.

In a nutshell, that’s what Jana does – taps the global reach of mobile phones to gather data on a mass scale. Often, Jana helps organizations from the World Bank to multinational corporations communicate directly with hard-to-reach consumers to collect actionable data, deploying surveys and offering airtime incentives to over 2.1 billion BoP consumers. But Jana wants to go further.

As Eagle explained, mobile phone users everywhere are leaving a digital paper trail that’s ripe for analysis but largely untapped. There are only five back-end billing systems for all mobile operators worldwide – all with slightly different languages, but all with the same essentials: a unique ID and a time stamp for every mobile user, from Kansas to Kenya. In the aggregate, that means we can analyze behavior trends, or track movements, or question outliers. Irrespective of field – from urban planning to epidemiology – mass data from mobile phones is the common thread.

If the possibilities seem a bit hazy and unpredictable, that’s because they are. Transforming mobile phone data into a mass problem-solving tool raises more questions than it answers. According to Eagle, “Mobile is far more than a new technology. This is the advent of the Age of Big Data. We’re leaving digital traces of our behavior everywhere. And it’s not just happening in developed markets, but finally, with mobile phones, it’s also the case for emerging markets.”

As for what the Age of Big Data might mean for solving problems at the BoP? Jana seems to have only scratched the surface.

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