Operationalising mobile phone network data for development and humanitarian action

How has mobile network data been used to inform policy? What building blocks need to be in place to leverage mobile phone network data for real-time policy analysis, decision making and impact tracking? UN Global Pulse and the Digital Impact Alliance are excited to host a joint-session at the UN World Data Forum in Dubai to explore the operational aspects of using mobile phone network data as a public good.

At the event, we are bringing various actors from government, UN Agencies, Mobile Network Operators and NGOs to share their research and on-the-ground experience of using mobile network data to inform decision making around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and for humanitarian action.

With more than 5 billion people connected to mobile services in 2017 and projections of reaching 5.9 billion by 2025, or 71 per cent of the world's population, the mobile phone sector has become increasingly important in helping achieve the SDGs. While the mobile industry has made great strides in supporting the SDGs, we are still far from realizing its full impact. A critical piece of the mobile industry's impact lies in the data it generates for analysis, which governments, humanitarian and development organizations, and donors agree would be extremely beneficial to address key humanitarian issues and reach the SDGs by 2030.

Anonymised mobile network data contains information about population characteristics such as movements, density, location, social patterns, and finances. As this data is uniquely detailed and tractable, it can capture information not easily found from other sources at a scale that would be difficult to recreate through other means. Once anonymized and aggregated to appropriate levels, this data can provide a variety of insights with tremendous value for development partners, including but not limited to mobility, social interaction, and economic activity.

UN Global Pulse has developed a series of proof-of-concepts for the use of mobile network data for public good, including tracking food security, informing disaster management and understanding seasonal migration, among others. We're working not only with mobile operators around the world, but also with their industry trade organization, the GSMA. In 2017, GSMA established an explicit strategy around putting anonymiszed mobile big data to work for the public good. There are currently 19 mobile operators who are committed to the Big Data for Social Good initiative. This is exciting for us because it shows how data philanthropy could work at an industry-wide scale, rather than with just one partner at a time.

We also strive to catalyse the use of big data for public policy and humanitarian action by advancing normative frameworks and delivering learning experiences for policy makers across the world via our network of labs. At the World Data Forum, we hope to showcase some of our work in the South Pacific with Digicel and the Governments of Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, informing responses to natural disasters in these contexts and shaping our thinking on how to scale this work, as well as share the experiences of our colleagues at ITU who are using mobile network data to better understand the development of information societies.

DIAL's Data for Development portfolio focuses on unlocking the value of private sector data (including mobile network data) in a safe, standardized manner, utilizing technical, commercial and governance-driven innovation to help achieve impact and sustainability. DIAL is working with a global network of partners including country governments, mobile network operators, technology solutions providers, donors and implementation organizations to support the building and scaling of data-driven solutions to meet the SDGs. DIAL also provides capital and operational support for development and deployment of reusable digital building blocks (e.g. software platforms, data analytics tools) that are designed once but that can be tailored to fit unique sectoral and geographical needs. This October, DIAL will share updates and key learnings from our work in Uganda and Malawi, our platform investments, and from global research by inviting our key partners to share their experiences. While each of these projects has been different in terms of focus and lessons learnt, we've also identified high-level synthesis items at the ecosystem level, which are helping us understand what is needed to bring the use of mobile data to scale.

UNGP and DIAL are excited to co-host this panel given the overlap of our work and the recognition that in order to scale and sustain the use of mobile network data, we must share what we've learned so far and increase collaborative efforts. The UN World Data Forum provides a great opportunity to elevate the conversation so that we, as a data community, can work together to make the use of mobile network data more systemic and sustainable.

We hope you join our session and bring forth your ideas so that we can further develop practices and models that safely and responsibly use mobile data for public good.

Robert Kirkpatrick is Director of UN Global Pulse, an innovation initiative of the UN Secretary-General on big data. Global Pulse’s network of innovation labs in New York, Uganda and Indonesia allow UN System partners to discover and mainstream applications of big data and AI for sustainable development and humanitarian action.

Syed Raza is the Senior Director of Data for Development at the Digital Impact Alliance, is a multi-donor funded organization housed by the United Nations Foundation. DIAL's vision is a world in which the underserved benefit from digital technology.