Can data be a force for good rather than just a way of companies aggregating information about customers buying habits and interests? Nuria Oliver, is Vodafone’s Director of Research in Data Science who believes that big data can be a powerful tool to help us respond more efficiently when facing natural disasters, help us better manage public health emergencies, transportation and foster financial inclusion.
She says, “The two most important forces in the world today – social media and mobile phones, are generating massive amounts of human behavioural data. This large scale data, can help us understand the world.”
For instance, data can play an important role in tackling emergency situations during natural disasters. Rescuers during a crisis need to know how many people are affected by the disaster and where they might be. “Today, we can answer what we couldn’t in the past.
Aggregated and anonymised mobile data was used to help rescuers during the Nepal earthquake and the one in Haiti. We can similarly use data to manage infectious diseases. Diseases don’t spread if people don’t move. By understanding mobility and the patterns of movement, health workers can anticipate progression to stop the spread of infectious diseases.”
The Vodafone Foundation a few months back announced a pioneering programme in Ghana to use aggregated anonymised data to help the government track and control epidemics to prevent widespread outbreaks. The programme, one of the first of its kind in the world, will use aggregated anonymised mobile data to track real-time trends in population movement.
The data is then analysed to provide life-saving insights during an epidemic. The programme is a good example of how big data can be used to gather valuable insights, which the government of Ghana can apply to a number of health and other sustainable development challenges, saving and improving lives. This has been called the ‘Big Data for Good” programme
However, using data for public good has rarely been part of CSR initiatives of companies. Nuria says, “Companies don’t have data for good departments. A data for good program needs a complex understanding of how data works and how it can be used with external sources to deliver real meaning. While the mobile data is very valuable, it is just a window into a complex reality.
Therefore, to generate public health insights we need deep understanding not only of the data, but also of the problem at hand, through partnerships with experts in e.g. public health or epidemiology. Reality is multi-faceted and complex.
We can identify meaningful correlations but making statements on causation is much more difficult; we would need to carry out interventions in the real world to test different hypothesis or findings, which, of course, is always difficult.”
So why isn’t everyone using big data for solving social problems? There are also social and ethical barriers to using data. Data needs to be secure, it also needs to be anonymised well so that people cannot be traced back. Also, social impact programmes mostly involve collaborating with several public-private stakeholders.
Hence, the companies need to negotiate collaboration agreements with external organizations such as governments, NGO’s and institutions who may not always have the same agenda as the company. Besides all this data and AI based projects are horrendously expensive to initiate and maintain. “Data doesn’t sit still – it grows; and many times exponentially.
Companies need to therefore be prepared with flexible budgets and partnerships which can sustain the momentum. We also need to identify feasible financial models so these projects can be sustainable over time”, says Nuria.
Realising these challenges, the mobile industry association GSMA has started the “Big Data for Social Good” initiative.
Through this initiative, mobile operators are adopting a common framework to adopt an ecosystem approach to support planning, decision-making and response to help public agencies and NGOs tackle epidemics, natural disasters and environmental pollution.
There are other coalitions too. Data-Pop Alliance –where Nuria is Chief Data Scientist– is a global coalition on Big Data and development created by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, MIT Media Lab, the Overseas Development Institute and Flowminder, bringing together researchers, experts, practitioners, and activists to promote a people-centered Big Data revolution through collaborative research, capacity building, and community engagement.
Nuria says, “People are beginning to understand the value of data to improve the world and telecom companies are at the heart of this revolution for positive social impact. I am excited, grateful and proud to be able to contribute to it.”
Based on Conversation with Nuria Oliver, Vodafone’s Director of Research in Data Science and Chief Data Scientist in Data-Pop Alliance