Using Mobile Network Data for Development: How it works

Head of Pulse Lab Jakarta Derval Usher (left) and Head of Shared Value at Digicel Darren Hanniffy (right) presenting at the 2018 World Data Forum

Derval Usher is the Head of Pulse Lab Jakarta and Darren Hanniffy is the Head of Shared Value at Digicel. In this joint blog they reflect on the PLJ-Digicel partnership, the state of the relationship between the development and mobile telecoms sectors, as well as the way forward for mobile data innovation and development impact.

“The data revolution won’t be complete without finding new ways to work together”. This message was consistently repeated at the UN World Data Forum, which was held in Dubai last month where more than 2,000 people from across the globe met over the course of three days at a jam-packed event that focused on how far we have progressed in harnessing the data revolution for the Sustainable Development Goals. The main takeaway from the event was that collaboration is essential, through its many forms, to achieve scalable, sustainable progress towards achieving the Global Goals.

While the use of new sources of data for policy are not yet reaching scale, especially in developing nations, plenty of exciting and innovative pilots were showcased at the event, highlighting the potential, including a presentation from the United Nations Global Pulse’s Jakarta Lab (PLJ) and Digicel, a mobile network operator, on the intricacies of collaborating on big data analytics for development and humanitarian action through a Shared Value [1] partnership.

The What? Digicel and PLJ are collaborating to analyse anonymised call detail records across Digicel’s Pacific operations with a view to informing public policy and humanitarian action.

The Why? Much research has been published on the benefits of mobile network data for development and humanitarian action but the demand for this analysis is still nascent in the public sector. We are keen to develop a deeper understanding of the challenges and opportunities of operationalising mobile network data as a form of evidence for public sector decision making.

The How? Determination and commitment to the partnership with strong open channels of communication and a sense of humour, if truth be told. There are many hurdles to be overcome for a UN agency to successfully partner with a large enterprise and vice versa and it requires patience on both sides.

And where are we now? Effective public private partnerships take time to build. What was not really mentioned at the World Data Forum is the long and tedious journey of negotiating a data partnership before we get to the data science wizardry. The journey of ensuring legal agreements are in place, hardware is available, data privacy is secured by all partners and getting the data into a format that can be analysed is difficult and a major buzzkill for many partnerships. What we had on our side was a willingness and commitment from both sides to make the partnership work and a certain level of trust built on the recognition that we were striving towards a common goal.

Looking forward, many sustainable development solutions will be delivered by the private sector and increasingly on digital platforms. Telecommunications platforms are poised to deliver far more than data and statistics for the public sector. Education, health, disaster resilience, social protection and livelihoods are just some of the areas in which telecoms are currently engaging and they also represent overarching objectives that the UN is working to achieve by the year 2030. A data collaborative to ensure the shared value emerges for both sectors makes sense.

And the good news is? This collaboration is now yielding results. We have produced some really decent analysis that proves the value of anonymised mobile network data for humanitarian action and more effective development planning in the South Pacific. We aim to equip decision makers with data tools so that they have access to the analysis on the fly. But to help this scale we need progress in three areas:

1. The framework to support Shared Value partnerships.

2. Shared understanding of The Proposition and the benefits for all parties.

3. Access to finance and a funding strategy, designing-in innovation.

1. Any Public-Private Partnership should be aligned to achieve impact centered on the SDGs through a Shared Value / Inclusive Business approach. Mobile network operators are consumed with the challenge of maintaining or upgrading their infrastructure, driving device sales and sustaining their agent networks to reach the last mile. Measuring impact against the SDGs has not been a priority. Mobile network operators tend not to seek out partnerships with traditional development donors or development implementers. But there is a growing realisation of the potential and the need to partner. It’s important to move from a service level transactional relationship to a strategic partnership approach.

Private sector partners have been fundamental to the success of UN Global Pulse as these companies are often the custodians of the big data sets from which we develop valuable development and humanitarian insights. Although in previous years our private sector partners were framed primarily as data philanthropists, we are beginning to see a shift in the relationship to one of shared value. Our work generates public value and also insights that can enhance business operations. This shared value model is attracting more private enterprises to engage and to explore their own data, and more broadly to investigate the value of their networks and data as part of the data innovation ecosystem, which the Global Pulse lab network will build on as we move forward.

2. Partners need to be more propositional and less charitable. They need to recognise the fact that earning profit may help ensure the sustainability of digital platforms and services that offer developmental impact. Through partnership we can attract innovative finance, deliver mobile for development programmes, measure impact and create affordable commercial solutions to development challenges that become sustainable by design. Pulse Lab Jakarta and Digicel have been flexible with one another which is important as this partnership has not always been a priority for either side all the time. But we believe in unlocking the power of mobile data for development and therefore continue to make progress.

3. Development and commercial strategies should be more aligned to create an enabling environment. Currently they are not. Private sector needs to become a strategic partner to development where multi-annual development funds align with commercial strategy. Mobile network operators continue to invest in their network particularly in developing countries and the digital platform is coming into being in the markets where Digicel operates. But the platform is new and experience is limited within governments, the development community and indeed even within mobile network operators.

We need to see donors actively engage during the development of multi-annual funding facilities. Finance models need to evolve to drive collaboration and to encourage strategic alignment, for example in the field of digital literacy or app-based educational tools. And more broadly, there needs to be a move from a transactional to a strategic partnership. Currently we don’t have complete alignment of strategy on either side.

The potential to unlock the power of mobile network data, particularly in developing markets, is significant. Digital platforms are being expanded and will inevitably be used to deliver mobile for development solutions. We see the potential for mobile data to create a new paradigm for how development assistance is delivered and we are proud to be driving this innovative research together to help drive more effective and efficient decision making where it matters.

Over the coming months we will be blogging about each of the research projects that we are doing using mobile network data. We will be pleased to hear comments and feedback on the analysis itself.

[1] Shared Value is a business strategy whereby companies focus on creating economic benefit by identifying and addressing social problems that intersect with their business.


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