Benefits of Using Mobile Phone Data for Official Statistics

PLJ’s junior data scientist, Muhammad Rizal Khaefi, discussing insights gleaned from mobile phone data on displacement patterns following the Highlands Earthquake in Papua New Guinea

With mobile phones becoming more affordable in recent years, they have become a ubiquitous household item that people depend on for different purposes. For mobile phone operators, data that’s generated such as the time, duration and location of a call is typically used for billing purposes. Pulse Lab Jakarta though has been partnering with mobile operators in the region to investigate how mobile phone data can be used in official statistics production, particularly on topics such as migration, citizen displacement and changes in human behaviour. During the recent United Nations Global Working Group on Big Data’s regional workshop on the use of mobile phone data for official statistics that took place in Jakarta, we were happy to host a group of participants coming from ten national statistical offices in the region, and share some of our related research projects and insights.

The UN Global Working Group on Big Data, which UN Global Pulse is a member of, was formed in 2014 following agreement at the Statistical Commission’s 45th session to create the GWG on Big Data for Official Statistics to further investigate the benefits and challenges of Big Data, including the potential for monitoring and reporting on the sustainable development goals. Mobile phone data was identified as a key priority at the Group’s earliest meeting, and efforts have since been made to engage with private and public sector players; to foster collaboration on a series of pilot projects; and share feedback on best practices.

Statistics Indonesia (BPS), Indonesia’s central statistics bureau, hosted the workshop in Jakarta, which was organised by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) and United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA). Representatives from ten national statistical offices (Bangladesh, Cambodia, Georgia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nepal, the Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam) across the region took part. The overall objective of the workshop was to raise awareness about the benefits and challenges of using mobile phone data for official statistics, and to brainstorm on how mobile phone data can be operationalised to meet citizens’ expectations within a specific country context.

Several key benefits of using mobile phone data for official statistics were outlined during the workshop which included:

  1. Providing much more detailed statistics
  2. Sampling frame validation
  3. Validating survey statistics
  4. Improving accuracy
  5. Reducing cost
  6. Improving timeliness
  7. Reducing respondent burden
  8. Meeting unmet demands
  9. Filling data gaps with the SDG indicators
  10. Building new business models

One of the tools that guided the conversations during the workshop was the Working Group’s Handbook on the Use of Mobile Phone Data for Official Statistics, which provides a framework for countries that are in the process of designing projects related to the use of mobile phone data or are about to begin implementation. It also includes information on types of mobile phone data sources, partnership models, methods and a few country case studies.

The participants’ visit to the Lab helped to bring home much of what they had learnt in the hands-on workshop training over the previous days which was expertly led by Siim Esko of Positium, as they were given an opportunity to speak directly with Pulse Lab Jakarta’s data analytics team about some of our mobile phone data analysis projects and hear first-hand experiences. To better communicate the insights from these projects, especially to some of the participants who were not from a data science background, we set up display stations for participants to interact with the data visualisations.

In particular, we discussed how we’ve been able to successfully utilise mobile phone data to:

The summary slides from our presentation can also be found here.

Mobile phone data used responsibly can help to produce official statistics more efficiently, which then leads to better service delivery and improved programme planning. We were privileged to participate in this workshop, as well as hear from our colleagues from the different national statistical offices about existing data gaps and challenges they face. The discussions were inspiring and motivated us to continue our work on the use of mobile for data for development and humanitarian action, especially building mutually beneficial partnerships between the development and mobile telecom sectors.

Results of an earlier survey conducted by the Global Working Group on Big Data indicated that not many countries around the world already have a long term strategy in place that actively leverages big data to accomplish national goals. So it is heartening to know that Statistics Indonesia (BPS) who also participated in this workshop is driving similar efforts domestically, and has been facilitating training to develop its in-house expertise and ability to carry out related projects. To that end, we were happy to also reconnect with one of BPS’s data scientists, Ms. Alfatihah Reno, who was seconded to Pulse Lab Jakarta a few years and is applying the knowledge she gained at the Lab to shape the Government’s strategy on the use of mobile data for official statistics.

We’re thrilled to have been able to share our work during this workshop and look forward to continuing to support the UN Global Working Group on Big Data and regional governments’ efforts in identifying and leveraging responsible use of big data to improve the lives of citizens.

Pulse Lab Jakarta is grateful for the generous support from the Government of Australia.



UN Global Pulse Asia Pacific
United Nations Global Pulse Asia Pacific

UN Global Pulse Asia Pacific is a regional hub that aims to drive data innovation and sustainable development to ensure that no one is left behind.